Video of the ROKS Cheonan Suggests External Explosion; Plus, John Feffer Already Knows North Korea Didn’t Do It (Update: A North Korean Mine?)

Via this CNN report, which carries video from YTN, we get our first brief glimpse of the hull of the ROKS Cheonan (see also here). It’s just a glimpse of a small piece of the keel from the half of the ship — the bow, apparently — still floating on the surface, but at 2:59, you can see that the metal next to the break appears to be dented inward, lending support to theories that some sort of external explosion sank the Cheonan:

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The New York Times prints the recollection of the ship’s captain:

“I heard a terrible explosion and the ship keeled suddenly to the right. We lost power and telecommunications,” Choi Won-il, captain of the Cheonan, told the relatives. “I was trapped in the cabin for five minutes before my colleagues broke the window in and let me out. When I got out, the stern had already broken away and disappeared underwater.

Most of those missing were believed to have been trapped inside their rapidly sinking ship as waters gushed into their dark under deck, officials said.

“Many sailors were hanging onto the bow of the sinking ship,” Kim Jin-ho, a crewman on a civilian ferry to Baengnyeong, a South Korean border island, told YTN television, describing the rescue scene on Friday night. “They were shouting for help. They were falling into water. [N.Y. Times, Choe Sang-Hun]

Evan Ramstad of the Wall Street Journal reports that the South Korean government still isn’t really saying what caused, or didn’t cause, the accident. No survivors and no bodies have been found since the explosion itself. Ramstad also points to the long history of North-South naval combat in those same waters. Although I’ve seen no direct evidence of North Korean culpability, that history is reason enough not to rule it out, either, until we have another plausible explanation. But the range of alternatives seems to be narrowing.

Here are the ROK Navy’s working theories, as reported by Yonhap:

Military officials were narrowing down the possibilities to the vessel’s collision with a rock, a torpedo attack from outside forces, including North Korea, or an internal explosion due to the gunpowder and explosives the ship was carrying.

A collision with a rock seems unlikely to have caused such a catastrophic explosion, especially in the ship’s stern. The video and the account of at least one officer who survived the Cheonan both seem to discount an internal explosion.

“There is no possibility whatsoever that the ship sank due to an internal explosion or a collision with a reef. I guarantee that,” a navy lieutenant was quoted as saying by participants in a briefing session organized by the Navy’s Second Fleet Command in Pyeongtaek, Gyeonggi Province — the home port of the ill-fated ship.

“Another cause could be an attack from an outside force and that is not exact as of yet. The military is currently conducting an investigation and I am not in a position to comment on that,” he added. [Korea Herald]

The officer’s views might be more persuasive if the Korea Herald also printed his explanation for this conclusion. I can’t say whether the possibility that no one asked frustrates me more than the possibility that no one thought his answer was fit to print.

The CNN report seems to give credence to another theory — that a sea mine caused the explosion. This is plausible if, but only if, we can discount or explain the reports of shooting “around the time of the incident,” or maybe “shortly after.” The Times of London reports shooting “for 15 minutes around the time that the ship began to founder after an explosion in its stern.” That’s a lot of birds.

I could believe that the shooting came after the explosion as the result of panic aboard the ship, or aboard another ship, if the question of timing can be resolved. According to the Chosun Ilbo, the sailors were shooting at “an identified object.” The survivors will know if the shooting came before the explosion, or if anyone spotted anything suspicious. If the answer to either question is “yes,” it would focus the investigation on either a friendly fire incident or an attack. The former should be easy to rule out once the other ROK Navy ships in the area and their armaments are accounted for.

Given the overwhelming evidence of an explosion, the explanation that seems least likely was that offered by a bereaved widow of a crew member and reprinted by the AP:

Some relatives had said Saturday at the naval base that rescued crew members described the Cheonan — which survived a 1999 skirmish with North Korean warships — as old and leaky.

“He was reluctant to go on board because the ship was so old and faulty,” one weeping wife said Saturday of her missing husband. “I am sure the ship being leaky led to it sinking.”

Her grief makes her desire to assign responsibility understandable, but the Cheonan didn’t just spring a leak; she was blown in two.

Notably, most of the speculation about a possible attack has focused on the limited capabilities of North Korean warships and submarines. Typical of this are government statements indicating the lack of radar contacts with, or “unusual movement” of North Korean vessels, or that, according to the Times of London, “sensitive surveillance and satellite data showed there were no North Korean units in the area.”

If they are trying to convince me that this was not a conventional attack by North Korean warships, I’m mostly convinced. By default, this might add some support to the theory that a mine sank the Cheonan, but would not diminish the possibility that this was an unconventional attack by frogmen, speedboat, or semi-submersible. And of course, it’s also possible that a North Korean mine sank the Cheonan. A more difficult question would be determining whether the mine drifted south — the waters are notorious for their strong currents — or was deliberately placed.

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Still, the State Department’s advice — “Let’s not jump to conclusions here” — seems sensible while the evidence is assembled and reported. Unless, of course, you’re more invested in a particular outcome than interested in arriving at the truth of the matter.

“I doubt that North Korea was involved in the incident,” said John Feffer, co-director of the Foreign Policy in Focus program at the Institute for Policy Studies. “It didn’t seem to involve any artillery fire from the North.” [Yonhap]

Well then … possibilities exhausted and case closed!

Feffer disagreed with the assumption that North Korea attacked the South Korean naval vessel, noting this incident is different from the previous clashes that involved fishing boats of the two Koreas crossing their sea border.

Oddly enough, what I’ve noticed so far are the great lengths the ROK and U.S. governments have gone to to avoid making assumptions. Also, until now, I had no idea that any of these incidents involved fishing boats. Reinforcing a poor command of the facts with repetition, Feffer continues:

“There have been naval clashes between North and South in the past, but these have usually involved rising tensions, warnings, fishing boats crossing the NLL,” he said. “But this was, as far as we know, a surprise. And there was no larger reason why the North might engage in such a surprise attack.”

Whatever you say, John.

Feffer, you may recall, also managed to construct an absolution of Kim Jong Il of responsibility for starving a million or two of its own people while squandering a fortune on nuclear and conventional weapons, and thinks Kim Jong Il’s concentration camp guards need to be “induced ‘to find their own framework on human rights issues’ . . . so that they can become the ‘subject of their own history rather than an object of our policy.'” Hat tip to the pro-Pyongyang Korea Is One for preserving that view for posterity. Most recently, and just a few scant months after it unilaterally renounced the Korean War cease fire, Feffer has joined in Pyongyang’s demand for the United States to sign a peace treaty with the North. This is not expertise. This is chutzpah.

Which leaves me to ask: Who the hell decided that John Feffer was a North Korea expert, much less a military expert. I mean, does this look like a military expert to you?

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Again, I’m aware of no direct evidence that North Korea sank the Cheonan, but Feffer certainly offers no convincing evidence that it didn’t. Not that the absence of evidence has ever stopped Feffer drawing a conclusion before.

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Sadly, there seems little chance that any other members of the Cheonan‘s crew will be found alive at this point, but the U.S. Navy is sending a ship to assist in the search and recovery operation. The ship had been present for the annual Foal Eagle exercises, which always draw their share of threats and vituperation from the North.

CNN has a photo essay on the rescue operation here; BBC has one here.

Updates: The South Korean Navy has located the rear section of the Cheonan‘s hull, where many of the 46 mission sailors are likely to be trapped. It seems unlikely that any of them would still be alive.

Meanwhile, North Korea remains conspicuously silent about the incident, which says nothing about its culpability, one way or the other. If the North Koreans wanted, say, to promote this as Kim Jong Eun’s first great military victory, they wouldn’t use broadcast media. They’d announce it over their domestic cable radio system, and with limited distribution at that. I emphasize that this is a hypothetical statement.

Update, 30 March 2010: Uh oh:

A naval mine dispatched from North Korea may have struck the South Korean warship that exploded and sank near the Koreas’ disputed sea border, the defense minister told lawmakers Monday, laying out several scenarios for the maritime disaster.

Defense Minister Kim Tae-young said there was no sign of a direct attack from rival North Korea, but military authorities have not ruled out North Korean involvement in the sinking of the Cheonan late Friday night. [….]

Kim, grilled by lawmakers on what happened Friday night, said the ship may have struck a mine left over from the war or deliberately dispatched from the North. [AP]

One possibility raised is of a mine left over from the Korean War, but none has been found since 1984, and it just doesn’t seem likely that one would destroy a warship in an area patrolled this frequently only now, when North Korea happens to be raising tensions. It seems more likely that whoever placed the mine — if it was a mine — probably did so recently:

“North Korea may have intentionally floated underwater mines to inflict damage on us,” Kim told lawmakers. He insisted there were no South Korean mines off the west coast, and ruled out a torpedo attack from North Korea, which would have been spotted by radar.

Officials have also said an internal malfunction may be to blame. The 1,200-ton Cheonan is designed to carry weapons, and was involved in a previous skirmish with North Korea.

U.S. and South Korea military officials said there was no outward indication that North Korea was involved in the sinking of the Cheonan. However, “neither the government nor the defense ministry has ever said there was no possibility of North Korea’s involvement,” Kim said.

You can call this backpedaling from backpedaling. There’s still much mutually contradictory speculation going on, but it’s premature to dismiss the possibility that North Korea was behind this. It would hardly be aberrant behavior for them.