The general, booze and the Cheonan

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The general, booze and the Cheonan

Was the nation’s top military commander drunk on the night of the Cheonan’s sinking?

The Hankyoreh newspaper reported yesterday that General Lee Sang-eui, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, abandoned his post because he was too intoxicated when the Navy warship sank near the inter-Korean border on March 26. Following the report, the Joint Chiefs of Staff and the Board of Audit and Inspection said yesterday that General Lee had, indeed, consumed alcohol, but managed to be in control.

Quoting several military sources, the Hankyoreh reported that Lee attended a military leader’s forum at the Gyeryongdae compound in Daejeon on the day of the incident and returned to Seoul in a heavily inebriated state following a group dinner.

The report said Lee arrived at the Defense Ministry’s command and control room around 10:42 p.m. but only attended 10 minutes of a situation assessment meeting convened by Defense Minister Kim Tae-young. The newspaper said Lee then effectively abandoned his post and went to sleep.

The newspaper also quoted an official from the Board of Audit and Inspection, confirming that Lee had consumed a significant amount of alcohol on the night of the Cheonan’s sinking. “We confirmed that he had about 10 drinks during the dinner, including some boilermakers, through records from the CCTV,” the official was quoted as saying.

Although the Defense Ministry initially insisted that Lee was in charge of the command and control room after Minister Kim left the ministry to attend a national security meeting at the Blue House, he actually was not, the newspaper said.

General Lee was also accused by the newspaper and Yonhap News of manipulating military records to make it look as if he stayed in the meeting. The Joint Chiefs of Staff dismissed some of the accusations yesterday in defense of its commander.

Park Sung-woo, spokesman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said Lee arrived at the command center around 10:42 p.m. and stayed until 2 a.m. “He left the room to take a rest until 5 a.m.,” Park said, denying that the general was too drunk to give orders.

Park also said no document was falsified to cover up General Lee’s absence.

Despite the military’s explanation, the Board of Audit and Inspection’s probe, announced Thursday, had revealed a series of bungles in the military’s crisis management. The board said that the military had systemically manipulated reporting from the time of the sinking in an attempt to cover up their lack of prompt responses.

At the National Assembly, lawmakers questioned Kim Hwang-sik, head of the Board of Audit and Inspection, about its probe’s conclusions. Asked about General Lee’s intoxication, the audit board head replied that the commander did consume alcohol, but was not too drunk.

“We’ve confirmed it thorough the CCTV record of the party. He did drink, but he was not too drunk that he would have made wrong decisions,” Kim said.

The Navy chief of staff was also at the drinking party, the audit board chief said.

Kim also said that of the 25 military officials it recommended for reprimand, about 12 may be criminally liable under the military criminal code.

“After censures by the military, indictments are expected for some,” Kim said. “Taking into account the peculiar nature of the military, the military investigation authorities or the Defense Ministry should make the decisions on criminal punishments.”

Kim said Thursday’s announcement was an interim report and a final one will be available in a month. “More people could be named to be disciplined,” Kim said.

Asked who made the decision to ignore the Cheonan’s initial report that it had appeared to be hit by a torpedo, Kim said the Second Navy Fleet commander, Rear Admiral Kim Dong-sik, issued the order.

The audit board’s investigation found that the 2nd Fleet had also ignored a report from another warship, the Sokcho, that it had fired on a suspected North Korean submarine. When the fleet made the report to the upper chain of command, it said the Sokcho fired at a flock of birds.

By Ser Myo-ja [myoja@joongang.co.kr]

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