S.Korea Military Botches Boat Sinking Probe

South Korea is rife with rumors over the mysterious sinking of the Navy patrol craft Cheonan on March 26. While the Department of Defense struggles to cobble together answers, few people are hiding their anger and doubts about the department’s clueless crisis management. One critic described the Defense Department’s crisis standard operating procedure as “a bureaucratic giant running around with his hair on fire -- but no system.”

When both the media and the opposition parties fiercely attacked the military’s poor response, the government and the ruling party responded by saying that people should not second-guess the cause of the disaster, in which 44 sailors died and 58 were rescued. In addition, President Lee Myung-bak warned that the tragic (accident or) incident should not be interpreted as political. A torpedo, sea mines, an internal explosion and a ship malfunction have been floated as possible causes, along with the inevitable suspicion that. North Korea was involved.

The first responsibility of the Defense Department is to offer South Korea a more transparent and substantial explanation with solid evidence, rather than to make a memorably graphic presentation to the commander-in-chief. It would take much time to come up with an answer in order to stoke vast confusion about the cause of the explosion that broke the 1,200-ton vessel into two. The answer can be another beginning of the debate over the incident.

Behind the debate over investigating the mysterious explosion will be a debate over who is to blame, since it is crucial to get the truth right. Not only the families of the victims but people in general need to understand what went wrong. If the military were grossly negligent, or intellectually lazy, or showed terrible judgment, then something should be done about it. The most important question is how to protect the country from a ghost enemy.

Certainly, given the lack of coordinated response from the military, the sinking of the Cheonan has given rise to some truly outlandish theories. South Korea’s blogosphere is choked with bloggers who theorize that the defense department is involved in a risky secret war, fought in the dark by faceless and nameless military agents following commands unknown to the South Korean public.

Lee Kang-rae, the floor leader of the opposition Democratic Party, said recently that “Everyone believes the military is trying to cover something up,” suggesting that people do not believe the words spoken by the surviving soldiers at their first press conference two days ago.

On cue one of the leading local newspapers floated the suggestion in its editorial and Op-Ed sections that the presidential office, should move to a war footing reflexively right now. Some conservative newspapers---the aforementioned included -- even portrayed the North’s quiescence as a form of self-confession. They insist that the North should prove to the South and the world that they’re innocent.

The ideologically extreme and intensely partisan newspapers on the right seemingly imagine a special James Bond-style operational unit inside the Defense Department, carrying on the cold war. The papers, where macho derring-do is apparently cherished, already have started to bring an intense Cold War sense to the affair. Many North Korea analysts point out that substantial numbers of the conservative articles have actually influenced the current government in making policies toward the North.

The demands for an urgent need to go on a war footing are not unusual, given the papers’ jaundiced stance. In truth, it goes without saying that they have so far played an instrumental role in setting the government’s policy agenda. It is thus safer to say that most of the articles should be considered politically and militarily untenable until Seoul authorities completely finish putting the pieces together on what caused the sinking.

Some charge that the “authorized mission” given to the clandestine unit would be political quicksand, believing that the operation should, albeit carried out with only a handful of individuals’ knowledge, act in “novel and untested ways,” something totally different from robbing banks. In truth, there were reportedly numerous other similarly lost and mislaid clues.

The problem is not a lack of urgency, but rather a big systemic and human management failure. It is inevitable that the president should hold the responsible officials at the Defense Department accountable and culpable, since the whole country is watching it with a growing sense of anger and disbelief. Truly, many people have been shocked by the amateurism of the military authorities’ crisis management.

In reality, without being able to see satellite photos offered by the US, it is impossible to reach any solid or sound conclusions with regard to the whereabouts of alleged North Korean submarines, if any. In this regard, it is ridiculous to assert that the Lee government would “retaliate” against the communist North.

There has been much opinion about the seriousness of the problem, including whether there were forced confessions by the sailors who had barely escaped at the darkest moment of the tragedy. For the time being, it is hard to see if any are able to tell the truth over what happened that night, at least until any of them is officially discharged in due course. Understandably, they eschew open or different opinions to the disaster in favor of the politics of mere survival. Otherwise, probably, they’re told to shut up.

Some can selectively interpret or misinterpret the cause and suggest an ulterior motive by claiming that the naval tragedy was associated with the Kim Jong-il regime in North Korea, even if they do not all want to go that route. And there is no known indication that the president is dissatisfied with what the clumsy Defense Department has ever done after the misfortunate incident, but it was a wise and right decision that with regard to the probe into the naval tragedy, the president reportedly ordered the Defense Department to yield the lead role to a civilian appointee, whose status would probably be equivalent to that of a three-star general in the Defense.

It is only realistic to think that Mr. Lee’s decision reflected the public’s mind, let alone that of the bereaved families. The command can be interpreted as an order to get far more balanced and considerate. That said, the military’s progress report on the sunk frigate have been significantly discredited in terms of accuracy and credibility over time.

Lee Byong-Chul is a Senior Fellow at the Institute for Peace and Cooperation in Seoul.