60-Second Expert: The Cheonan Incident

Despite the publication of the Joint Investigation Group’s definitive account of the sinking of the South Korean naval corvette, Cheonan, the South Korean public remains skeptical over its conclusion. Opposition politicians, academics, and members of the scientific community have pointed to flaws in the final report, which damage its credibility and throw doubt on its findings.

The report was produced, it seems, with skeptics in mind. It carefully counters popular skeptical arguments, such as over the No. 1 marking on the torpedo, with well-reasoned clarity. The report also considers a number of other possible scenarios that could have lead to the sinking that have been advanced by rational skeptics and conspiracy theorists alike. By debunking such scenarios as the ship running aground or being sunk by a limpet mine, the report methodically builds to the conclusion that a North Korean torpedo attack remains the only plausible explanation

However, despite its attempt to provide a definitive account of the incident, problems persist. There remain questions over “the pillar of white light,” as well as the lack of some physical evidence normally associated with a torpedo, such as fragments embedded in the hull. Furthermore, some in the scientific community have questioned the analysis of aluminum oxide residues linking the torpedo dredged from the area to the ship.

Perhaps more alarming has been the Lee government’s reaction to skepticism. As a scientific paper, advancing a particular conclusion after the weighing of evidence, the report should be subject to peer review and critique. Instead, the Lee government has sought to curb dissent.

The conclusion reached by the report still remains the most likely and certainly the most thorough explanation. However, there remain a number of questions that go unanswered or unconsidered as well as concerns over the scientific analysis offered. Furthermore, a lack of transparency surrounding the incident, coupled with the Lee government’s assertive attitude toward dissenters, has kept skepticism alive.

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Greg Chaffin is an Intern/Research Assistant with Foreign Policy in Focus.