Translated by Kyoko Selden
Introduction by Mark Selden
At 9:22 on the night of March 26, the 1,200 ton ROK Navy corvette Cheonan was severed in two and sank in the waters off Baengnyeong Island, a contested area that is the closest point of South Korean territory to North Korea. Forty-six crew members died and 58 of the 104 member crew were rescued. It was the worst ROK naval disaster since 1974 when a navy landing ship capsized killing 159 sailors.
Nearly two months later, the elaborate political choreography of explanation and blame for the disaster continues on the part of North and South Korea, China and the United States. The stakes are high: ranging from an easing of tensions on the Korean peninsula to a new stage of fighting in the Korean War. With polls showing that 80 percent of ROK citizens believe that the sinking was caused by North Korean attack, tensions remain high. While segments of the US, European and Japanese mainstream press have exercised caution in jumping to the conclusion that a DPRK ship had attacked the Cheonan, the international media have shown no interest in following the leads opened by South Korean media and citizen researchers.
An ROK-sponsored investigation, with technical support from the United Kingdom, the United States, Sweden, Canada and Australia, has been underway. On 18 May, The Korea Times reported that investigators have found pieces of the torpedo screw that sunk the Cheonan, and that it is of a type manufactured exclusively by China and Russia. On May 20, the ROK government released its findings, charging that the submarine was sunk by a DPRK torpedo. Case closed. What is evident, however, is that important issues have been ignored or suppressed by the US and South Korean authorities.
In the article that follows, independent journalist Tanaka Sakai hypothesizes about what may have happened on the night of March 26 and after. Drawing on ROK TV and press reports and photographs, some of which were subsequently suppressed, Tanaka places at center stage a range of factors, some fully documented, others speculative, that have been missing, distorted, or silenced in US and ROK narratives: they include the fact and location of the US-ROK military exercise that was in progress at the time of the incident and the possibility that the Cheonan was sunk by friendly fire. Tanaka also presents evidence suggesting the secret presence of a US nuclear submarine stationed off Byaengnyong Island, the possible sinking of a US vessel during the incident, the role of US ships in the salvage and rescue operations that followed, the failure of the submarine USS Columbia to return from South Korea to its home port in Hawaii, and the death of an ROK diver in the attempt to recover that vessel.
At stake are issues that could rock the ROK government on the eve of elections, and could impinge on the US-ROK military relationship as the US moves to transfer authority over command to ROK forces by 2012, and to expand the role of China in the geopolitics of the region. There are implications for tensions between North Korea and the US/ROK on the one hand, and for the permanent stationing of US nuclear, and nuclear-armed, submarines in South Korean waters. Above all, there is the possibility that renewed war may be imminent in the Korean peninsula.