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Doubts surface on North Korea's role in ship sinking

Some in South Korea dispute the official version of events: that a North Korean torpedo ripped apart the Cheonan.

July 23, 2010|By Barbara Demick and John M. Glionna, Los Angeles Times

The military repeated that version for days. The audit board found that sailors on a nearby vessel, the Sokcho, who fired off 35 shots with a 76-millimeter cannon around the time of the sinking, were instructed to say they'd been shooting at a flock of birds, even though at first they had said they'd seen a suspected submarine on radar.

On April 2, as Defense Minister Kim Tae-young was testifying before the National Assembly, a cameraman shooting over his right shoulder managed to capture an image of a handwritten note from the president's office instructing him not to talk about North Korean submarines.

Such inconsistencies and reversals have fueled the suspicions of government critics. U.S. officials, however, say the panel's conclusion is irrefutable.

Rear Adm. Thomas J. Eccles, the senior U.S. representative on the panel, said investigators considered all possibilities: a grounding, an internal explosion, a collision with a mine. But they quickly concluded that the boat was sunk by a bubble-jet torpedo, which exploded underneath the vessel and didn't leave the usual signs of an explosion, he said.

"The pattern of damage was exactly aligned with that kind of weapon," Eccles said in a telephone interview. "Torpedoes these days are designed to drive underneath the target and explode. They use the energy of their explosion to make a bubble that expands and contracts. It is designed to break the back of the ship."

Pyongyang, meanwhile, denies involvement in the sinking and calls the accusation against it a fabrication.

South Koreans themselves appear to be confused: Polls show that more than 20% of the public doesn't believe North Korea sank the Cheonan.

Wi Sung-lac, South Korea's top envoy for North Korean affairs, says the criticism from within has made it difficult to get China and Russia on board to punish Pyongyang for the attack.

"They say, 'But even in your own country, many people don't believe the result,' " Wi said.

barbara.demick@latimes.com

john.glionna@latimes.com

Ju-min Park of The Times' Seoul Bureau and David S. Cloud of the Washington bureau contributed to this report.

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