Public losing faith in authority after sinking

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Public losing faith in authority after sinking

More than two weeks after the mysterious sinking of the Navy corvette Cheonan, the public still doesn’t know what happened - or who to believe in the government, military and media.

“Popular distrust is snowballing,” said Representative Kim Jang-soo of the Grand National Party, who served as the minister of national defense from 2006 to 2008. “When the military doesn’t disclose information that is confidential or that it deems irrelevant, people think they’re hiding something,” he said. “Then when the military reacts to public pressure and makes a disclosure, the public thinks something more is hidden.”

Although President Lee Myung-bak has stressed repeatedly that the truth must be disclosed to the nation, authorities provided conflicting information or withheld information and released it only after the public demanded it.

Public distrust has grown so deep that the Financial Times observed that the aftermath of the Cheonan tragedy has revived a tendency for South Koreans to view the state as “a monster.”

“The government and the military had a crisis response manual and acted based on it, but they appeared to react in panic and changed their stories several times, failing to win the people’s trust,” a security official explained.

On the night of March 26, the Navy corvette Cheonan sank after an unexplained explosion near a disputed inter-Korean border in the Yellow Sea. While 58 on board including the ship’s captain were rescued, two sailors were found dead and 44 remain missing. A search and rescue operation in harsh weather cost the life of a military diver.

The sinking of a Navy ship is a national security crisis, but the government and military haven’t been able to identify the cause. The incident took place near waters where the two Koreas exchanged fire last November. There were two naval skirmishes in the area in 1999 and 2002.

Speculation has grown about North Korea’s involvement, but no hard evidence implicating Pyongyang has been made public.

“This is an incredibly complex issue involving military deployments and forces operations of Northeast Asian countries and their efforts to maintain the balance in the region,” Kim said.

Even the most basic detail of the tragedy - the time it occurred - has been elusive. On March 26, the Joint Chiefs of Staff announced that the ship sank at 9:45 p.m.

The next day, they corrected that to 9:30 p.m. On March 28, the National Maritime Police Agency said the ship sank at 9:15 and the following day, Defense Minister Kim Tae-young said before the National Assembly that the ship sank at 9:25 p.m.

Ultimately, the Defense Ministry concluded that it sank at 9:22 p.m.

After the media reported that a thermal observation device recorded the sinking, the military refused to release the footage. An edited version of 80 seconds was later released, and public outrage soared. Eventually, the military was forced to provide about 40 minutes of the footage.

The Blue House and the military also gave different messages to the public. While the Blue House emphasized that there was no evidence of North Korea’s involvement, the military’s line was that there was no evidence to rule it out.

“The government is fueling the distrust by reversing its announcements over and over again,” said Representative Song Min-soon of the Democratic Party, who served as a foreign minister under the Roh Moo-hyun administration. “It is a national security crisis, so the authorities better remain coolheaded, review only confirmed information and announce the final conclusion.”

One day after the Cheonan’s sinking, families of missing sailors scuffled with soldiers at the Navy’s 2nd Fleet Command in Pyeongtaek because the military had kept them in the dark for 12 hours after the incident. Enraged about the lack of communication, the families turned violent, destroying the barricades. The military reacted by pointing guns at the families. Eventually, the families’ distrust was so high that they insisted on boarding the Navy ships to monitor the rescue operation.

The media also recklessly reported the tragedy, experts said. “They made headlines with speculation and unconfirmed intelligence. And when they were revealed wrong, they simply said the stories were about reasonable doubts,” said Professor Ha Ju-yong of Inha University, who teaches communications studies. “And most newspapers and broadcasters continued reporting speculation, so people started believing information spread through unofficial channels,” especially the Internet.

“The media should have focused on the missing sailors and how they should have been rescued if they were alive,” said Kim Tae-woo, senior researcher at the Korea Institute for Defense Analyses. “But most media reports were about the military aspects of the incident and a lot of that was pure speculation.”

Kim added, “The Korean Navy was stripped naked in front of the world. The media should have had a self-regulating mechanism about reporting on national security matters.”

Politicians also jumped into the circus.

On April 2, Defense Minister Kim Tae-young disclosed key intelligence during a National Assembly hearing. He spoke about the activities of two North Korean submarines and revealed that the U.S.-South Korea intelligence authorities have been spying on North Korea’s submarine bases two or three times a day with satellites.

More sensitive information was revealed by Grand National Representative Kim Hak-song, who heads the National Assembly’s Defense Committee, on April 5 after he was privately briefed by military officials.

The politicians were divided on how best to use the tragedy for political gain. While the Grand Nationals jumped to the conclusion that North Korea had a role in the sinking, the Democrats ruled the possibility out. Opposition parties have joined hands to demand the defense minister and the Navy chief be fired, although the two officials’ roles are crucial in coping with the crisis.

Experts said it is time for the nation to regain its composure.

“At the time of the Sept. 11 attacks, the U.S. government was aware that Al Qaeda was behind it,” said Lee Won-jong, former Blue House senior secretary for political affairs. “But the government and congress spent three years investigating the incidents and the people waited for them.”

A foreign affairs official said that in the past, Koreans have often been angry and agitated when a security incident happens and it is not clear who was responsible for the event. But the nation often fails to come up with measures to prevent any recurrence, the official said.


By Ser Myo-ja, Ko Jung-ae [myoja@joongang.co.kr]

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