Korea Kranks: Cheonan Conspiracy

September 28, 2010

I have developed a relationship with conspiracy theories analogous to that which thoroughly successful ex-smokers enjoy with the act of smoking i.e. a passionate antipathy based on being embarrassed about prior first-hand participation in activity now found shameful. I used to be a credulous fool when it came to conspiracy theories, I used to love ’em. I told people I truly believed that Lady Di was assassinated by the British government and the Royal Family in order to prevent her giving birth to a half-Arab child by Dodi Fayed that would then be a blood relation to the heir to the British throne. That shit just made so much sense at the time (royalty having a history of killing their own family members for far less). It was a credulous, childish indulgence, to be sure. I gleefully read up on many conspiracy theories without the slightest care that the “alternative” histories on offer might even be overlapping and contradicting one another. Today, I can’t precisely pinpoint an event or moment when I properly turned my back on them; it was more a gradual realization that, when it comes to conspiracy theories, real life just isn’t that sexy. I wasn’t even a bit-player in the psychedelic, sci-fi adventure story that I wished reality was. Another way to define all this would be to simply say I grew up.

It’s now with a mixture of nauseated fascination and weary annoyance that I turn my attention to Korea’s own home-grown “troofer” movement; those that refuse to believe that North Korea was responsible for the sinking of the Cheonan. Just as the infamous events of 9/11 in the United States caused the emergence of so many armchair structural engineers and amateur metallurgists in their mother’s basements, springing to life and bravely telling the world that something was amiss with the official story there, so too has the Cheonan sinking brought forth an alarming number of Koreans (and foreign observers) who have magically become experts in naval engineering, forensics, ballistics, etc. to declare that a North Korean torpedo could not possibly have had anything to do with the sinking of the Cheonan on March 26th this year.

The Joint Civilian-Military Investigation Group (JIG) assembled by the South Korean government and composed of an international team of independent experts from South Korea, the USA, the UK, Australia, and Sweden presented its findings into the sinking with the following conclusion

The following sums up the opinions of Korean and foreign experts on the conclusive evidence collected from the incident site; hull deformation; statements of relevant personnel; medical examination of the deceased service members; analysis on seismic and infrasound waves; simulation of underwater explosion; and analysis on currents off Baekryong-do and collected torpedo parts.

  • ROKS “Cheonan” was split apart and sunk due to a shockwave and bubble effect produced by an underwater torpedo explosion.
  • The explosion occurred approximately 3m left of the center of the gas turbine room, at a depth of about 6~9m.
  • The weapon system used is confirmed to be a high explosive torpedo with a net explosive weight of about 250kg, manufactured by North Korea.

The evidence points overwhelmingly to the conclusion that the torpedo was fired by a North Korean submarine. There is no other plausible explanation.

That’s a fairly unambiguous report but it seems like it’s simply not good enough for some people. Rather predictably, many Korean college students, as the demographic most likely to indulge in conspiracy nonsense; have expressed a great deal of scepticism about the official explanation for the sinking of the Cheonan. Low emotional intelligence is to be expected from this group, however, and it is certainly how I would choose to explain the credulous, crackpot views I myself held at the same age. The more unfortunate and weirder aspect here is the prominence of professional academics, commentators and pundits both in Korea and abroad that are contributing to the crank-chorus with their own pet theories and doubts. Two Korean professors, Suh Jae Jung and Lee Seung-hun, declared that the JIG had made a weak case and that the investigation had been “riddled with inconsistencies”. Suh’s area of expertise has the rather nebulous title ‘Korean Studies’ whereas Lee’s background is in quantum mechanics, thereby bestowing on the latter a veneer of scientific respectability (though not quite in a field relevant to the investigation at hand). The South Korean Ministry of Defense responded to the claims, forcefully rebutting the findings of Lee’s own experiments on the grounds that they failed to recreate the accurate pressures, temperatures and speeds of the detonation that sank the Cheonan (see – Ministry of Defense Responds to Cheonan Claims). Other, far wilder claims made have included the accusation that the sinking of the Cheonan is another false flag event intended as a Gulf of Tonkin incident to justify aggression against North Korea from the ever-despicable US government and the South Korean administration of Lee Myung-bak. President Lee has been laughably described as a “North Korea-phobe” who, it seems, is capable of conspiring to murder 46 South Korean sailors in order to engineer the conflict that will cause the collapse of the North Korean regime. However, rather than plucking neat answers from the shadow world of conspiracy, these claims merely provoke many more niggling questions.

The collapse of the North Korean regime would invariably trigger a humanitarian disaster whereby tens of millions of North Koreans would attempt to flood into neighbouring countries (China and South Korea). The North Koreans have very little in the way of skills that either country can use, being familiar with decades-old agricultural practices and little else. Even the one-party, authoritarian state of China is far more open than North Korea and great doubt lingers over the ability of the North Korean people to successfully adapt to life elsewhere. As it stands, they look like tens of millions of mouths that need to be fed, with nothing to offer in return. The Chinese don’t want them and South Korea definitely doesn’t want them. Why then would the South Korean government be actively plotting to bring about the sudden collapse of the North Korean regime via military conflict? Even if they wanted to do this, on the far-fetched assumption that China alone would have to deal with the resultant refugee crisis, wouldn’t the Chinese government have some rather serious objections and be quite capable of preventing such an action?

Following the sinking of the Cheonan and the subsequent increasing of tensions on the Korean peninsula, South Korean markets experienced turbulent times, with shares taking a hit and foreign investment getting spooked. South Korea is gradually recovering fairly well from the worldwide economic crisis with healthy growth forecast for the near future. Why would they risk this economic recovery and shit up the markets just to play the long shot of falsely accusing North Korea of sinking a naval vessel in the hope that it would trigger an endgame with the regime of Kim Jong-il? You can stretch Lee Myung-bak’s harder stance on the North as being indicative of a desire to topple the regime if you like, but it is abundantly clear that the man’s priorities lie first and foremost in the health of the South Korean economy and not scheming against the Norks. The Republic of Korea and the USA could defeat North Korea in a fight, sure, but at what cost? The economy of the ROK would have the shit kicked out of it and there would be a massive humanitarian disaster north of the 38th parallel.

North Korean propaganda poster. Not remotely suspicious.

Why would the investigation team of foreign experts lie about their findings? What does it profit the Canadians, Swedes, Brits and Australians on the team to take part in a stitch-up against North Korea and cover up the truth behind the deliberate murder of 46 men?

If the United States is also involved in this false flag operation, since conspiracy cranks the world over know that the US government is the single most evil entity in existence, why have they been extraordinarily reticent to confront North Korea fully? In response to the sinking of the Cheonan, Hillary Clinton hoped that the North Koreans would return to the six-party talks and downplayed any talk of a military response, quite in contrast to the stronger language coming from South Korean naval commanders who promised there would be consequences for those responsible. In the days following the incident, President Lee Myung-bak was reluctant to immediately blame North Korea and even went as far as to rein in his recklessly speculative Defense Minister Kim Tae-young, who first publicly voiced suspicions of North Korean involvement. Lee instead patiently stuck to the line of it being too early to know with any certainty what had happened until he could assemble the international team he wanted to conduct the investigation. There was no rush to war, no ramping up of rhetoric and brinkmanship (from the South Korean side, at any rate) to begin a confrontation.

It’s a preposterous waste of time to even engage with the Cheonan is a new Gulf of Tonkin theory. At any rate, it has long been proven false. It is now six months on from the sinking of the Cheonan and the Republic of Korea and the USA are not making war with North Korea. They are not manoeuvring in the international community to start a war, nor assembling forces to launch a campaign of regime change. One could hope that the people who made such claims some weeks ago would recant and apologize but if there’s one thing you can always rely on conspiracy cranks to bring to the table, it is a thorough and unrelenting shamelessness. Granted, some blame has to be placed on Lee Myung-bak’s administration for its occasionally ham-fisted handling of a delicate situation, which only helped fuel online hysteria and scepticism, but it remains baffling that there are so many useful idiots, in Korea and aboard, that refuse to recognize the belligerent and nefarious actions of a hostile rogue state and prefer instead to indulge in the masturbatory adolescent fantasies of their own governments being guilty of the worst crimes. It’s a pathetic thing to behold but there is always hope. Take it from a survivor of bad thinking such as I, it’s never too late to salvage your dignity with an abrupt volte-face.

(The cartoon used above shows a South Korean official pointing to the wreckage of a torpedo and exclaiming, “I got it!”. On the torpedo is written “I am North Korean”.)



  1. So were there weapons of mass destruction in Iraq? I agree in part with the essay – but I think it isn’t impossible to believe that governments bend the truth to justify their aspirations. However in the sinking of this vessel the motivation for misinformation doesn’t seem to be there.

    I don’t like your cynical take on what would happen if the regime fell — you never miss an opportunity to condemn and ridicule Kim Jong-il and his regime but it seems here you’re saying you’d rather it stay in tact than let the wan suffer a hit. I guess the case against any kind of reunification is pretty strong, but I think it’s something that Korea and the world should be working towards, not ruling out based on economics.

    * the opinions expressed above are not expert and not even especially well researched. Posted mainly for the purpose of devil’s advocacy.

  2. You’re throwing up a straw man with the WMD there, and ridiculing conspiracy theories is not the same as asserting that governments are never duplicitous or dishonest.

    It’s not so much a cynical take on what would happen if the regime in North Korea fell so much as a cynical take on the notion that the USA and the Lee Myung-bak administration are seeking to bring about the sudden collapse of the North Korean regime through military means. They are not trying to do that, yet I recently stumbled across some conspiracy nonsense that was asserting that very thing (as a means of explaining why the Cheonan sinking was a false flag, inside job).

    I would like to see the Korean peninsula reunified and I actually support both the South Korean and Chinese governments accepting large amounts of North Korean refugees on humanitarian grounds but my point was that, as far as I can see, neither the Chinese nor South Korean government share that sentiment.

    China probably deserves to bear much of the responsibility of a hypothetical post-regime collapse scenario in North Korea, given their repeated actions in preventing firmer measures being taken against North Korea by the international community.

  3. I know exactly what you were getting at with the idea of S. Korea and USA wanting nothing to do with a military conflict with N. Korea. I just found the tone so cynical I wanted to know what your actual opinion on the matter was. Thanks for replying.

    But on the topic of the WMDs, you can’t completely sweep that event under the rug if you’re going to berate conspiracy theorists. I mean it’s events like that that lend these conspiracy theories credibility. I like hearing conspiracy theories as exercises in critical thinking I don’t feel very strongly for or against them. Whether or not there was a moon landing matters very little to my day-to-day existence.

    I didn’t feel I was “throwing up a straw” by bringing up a government lie that lead to an international conflict. But on the other hand I guess, as you said, the more parties that are involved in an investigation the more likely the conclusions drawn are honest (“What does it profit the Canadians, Swedes, Brits and Australians on the team…?”). Unlike conspiracy theorists, I have some faith in the U.N., etc. to at least keep the record straight on most of that stuff… not so much on the point of enforcing an international code of conduct.

  4. P.S. Sorry I never tried to submit a caption for the Foucault picture. It was a great image and a good idea for a contest, but (embarrassingly) I hardly know who Foucault is short of a few quotes on society and power. I couldn’t do it justice. I look forward to new contests in the same vein, man.

  5. I meant the Straw Man fallacy –


    I say conspiracy theories are ridiculous.
    You replied, “So there were WMDs in Iraq?”

    At any rate, I’m going to indulge in the further antagonism of describing WMDs as faulty intelligence as opposed to government lies.

    Moo ha ha ha!

  6. The Foucault thing started as me basically indulging in a sorry excuse to take a few cheap shots at someone whose work I haven’t even read. Despicable, but it floats my boat nonetheless.

    After that, I actually got quite into the idea of running an informal competition and mailing a (novelty) prize to somebody. Making it a month long competition was probably a mistake though. (Two weeks left and it has started to slip my mind that it’s still happening).

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