[Viewpoint] It’s time to audit the auditNearly three months have passed since the South Korean Navy warship Cheonan was sunk by a North Korean torpedo on March 26. An international team of military and civilian experts conducted the probe that led to that finding, and has briefed the United Nations about its conclusions.
The North has continued to deny its responsibility. Progressive civic groups in the South, including the People’s Solidarity for Participatory Democracy, fueled confusion by sending letters to the UN challenging the probe outcome. And then the Board of Audit and Inspection - which should have been able to quell the suspicions - announced that the military leadership’s reactions on that night in March were sloppy.
Now some people are questioning the conclusions of the military-led joint investigation team. Although there is only one truth, the answer of what sank the Cheonan is evolving into a mystery.
The audit board’s probe - which pointed to false reports by the Ministry of National Defense, the Joint Chiefs of Staff and the Second Navy Fleet Command - sparked national anger at the military.
However, many soldiers do not accept the audit board’s conclusion, although they admit that they failed to prevent the sinking. They disagree with the audit board because the inspection’s conclusion leaves plenty of questions unanswered.
First, there was an issue about a flock of birds and a North Korean semi-submersible. After the Cheonan was attacked, another Navy warship, the Sokcho, arrived at the scene quickly. The Sokcho spotted an unidentified object on its radar and concluded it was a semi-submersible. They reported this to the Second Fleet Command and opened fire with 76-milimeter guns.
After the incident, however, the Second Fleet Command concluded that the target was not a semi-submersible but a flock of birds, and it made a new report to the upper chain of command.
The Board of Audit and Inspection found that by altering the original report and making a new one, the Second Fleet Command violated reporting protocols. It seemed to indicate that the Second Fleet Command had created a false report to cover up an infiltration of a North Korean semi-submersible.
That’s not what really happened. The initial judgment of the Sokcho was reported directly to Defense Minister Kim Tae-young and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff General Lee Sang-eui, and it was Kim who ordered the Sokcho to open fire at the unidentified target, and the Sokcho fired off 130 rounds. When the Second Fleet Command later reached a final conclusion that the object was not a semi-submersible but a flock of birds, it was because there was reason to do so.
The Sokcho’s moving target indicator (MTI) radar showed that the unidentified object kept moving even after it landed on North Korean land. The MTI only tracks moving targets. If it were a semi-submersible, it would have been impossible for it to move on land.
The waves near Baengnyeong Island at the time were very high, reaching about 2.5 meters (8.2 feet). A semi-submersible is incapable of moving in waves at the speed of 74 kilometers per hour (40 knots). If one had tried to do so, it would have capsized.
Furthermore, the target split on the radar screen, and then united again. A semi-submersible, of course, cannot do that. Records from the thermal observation devices on the Sokcho also captured nothing that indicated a semi-submersible.
Taking into account all those factors, the Navy could not conclude that the target was a semi-submersible. The Navy said it had to conclude that the Sokcho’s captain was mistaken and reported a flock of birds as a semi-submersible during the emergency.
The military said the Board of Audit and Inspection completely ignored its explanation before it made its announcement. Defense Minister Kim’s objections were completely shut down, the military said.
The audit board also criticized some top military officials for disclosing military secrets to the media, and that is also an issue. There is always a gap between the people’s right to know and military secrets. Some officials who tried to bridge the gap now face punishment. Those officials who did not budge were free from the audit board’s censure.
The Board of Audit and Inspection, furthermore, criticized the military for releasing the classified thermal observation device recording of the disaster to the media. When the military did release the recording to the public, it was due to fierce media demands. The audit board did not take into account the peculiarities of the military and the extraordinary circumstances of the incident, and simply inspected how rules and regulations were followed.
It is time to boost the military’s morale, which has been damaged so severely by the Cheonan fallout. To defend South Korea and prevent additional provocation from the North, we must trust the military. Following the reshuffle of generals, further replacements of senior military officials will take place next week.
The military should demonstrate its determination to never disappoint the people ever again. It must learn a lesson from the Cheonan’s sinking and prove its commitment to national defense.
*The writer is a JoongAng Ilbo staff reporter specializing in military affairs.
by Kim Min-seok