[Viewpoint] Sifting through evidence selectively

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[Viewpoint] Sifting through evidence selectively

So now the Russians tell us, according to the newspaper Hankyoreh, that it wasn’t a North Korean torpedo at all that sank the Cheonan, but an innocent mine that the South Korean ship just happened to tangle with.

Maybe so, maybe not - what do I know? This story continues to develop, and by the time my comments see print, the sea-mine theory will be confirmed, demolished or assigned to an ambiguous limbo of infinite possibilities.

What interests me is that the story so poignantly illustrates the human tendency to choose our beliefs and then sift through the evidence selectively to find support for our choices. Everybody does this - not just Koreans. But it was on my recent return to Korea, talking to Korean friends, that this train of thought started.

It is hardly surprising that Koreans have different ideas about how to react to the sinking of the Cheonan. For years - decades - nobody in Korea or anywhere else has developed a fruitful policy for managing the North Korean relationship.

But you might have thought that facts stand for themselves. Whether the sinking of the Cheonan was a deliberate act of North Korea or was an accident may be a matter of inferring the facts. Shouldn’t it be simple, however, to distinguish a sea mine from a torpedo? They operate differently. One waits in the water; the other is propelled through it. They are designed differently, shaped differently.

So when an international panel convened by South Korea identifies the agent of the Cheonan’s destruction as a North Korean torpedo, while a reported Russian investigation identifies it as a mine bobbing in the shallows, you would think that there must be a true and false here.

But people do love to choose their facts.

Even before the report of the Russian investigation, one of my dearest Korean friends told me that she had her doubts about the report. “It’s just too convenient,” she said. Too convenient?

“They needed a provocation.”

“They,” apparently, is the South Korean government, but my friend did not explain why the provocation was needed. Perhaps I can figure that out, though. All democratically accountable governments, like South Korea’s, always need to shore up popularity. For that matter, all despotic governments, like North Korea’s, do, too.

So then the question is, which Korea finds more “convenience” in the sinking of a naval ship resulting in the loss of 46 lives? I could be really irritated by the obtuseness of some Koreans, if it were not for my dear, sainted 101-year-old mother.

I will never call my mother obtuse, but here is what happened: Thirty-some years ago I was a foreign correspondent based in Soviet Moscow. With the cockiness of youth, I thought I had written some pretty fine stories.

Home on vacation I preened a bit, and she asked me, “Is it true that Soviet citizens have to line up for basic foods?”

“Mom! Didn’t you read my stories?”

“Oh, I read them, but I thought maybe it was propaganda.”

A man would like to think that at least his mother believes in him. But my mother’s attachment to a noble, alternative Cold War narrative - that both sides, the United States and the Soviet Union, were equally at fault - overrode her pride in her son.

Why should we expect Koreans to be more objective than my mother?

My dear Korean friend - the one who thought the official findings too “convenient” - has a history that confirms her narrative. During the military regime of Park Chung Hee, her brother joined students protesting the dictatorship. He was detained, maltreated and denied readmission to university. His future was obliterated.

My friend is a sophisticated, politically aware citizen. She travels the world and knows that South Korea is no longer unfree. But she will surely never get over her resentment at what the South Korean government did to her brother.

So she withholds judgment about blame for the Cheonan. Anyway, why was it necessary to threaten to resume propaganda broadcasts at the demilitarized zone? “Pure provocation,” she says.

And she clings to shreds of possibility that support her resentment. Maybe the Russians are right. Maybe the North Koreans didn’t sink the ship.

I think of two quotations:

The Spanish writer Miguel de Unamuno said: “We should try to be the parents of our future rather than the offspring of our past.” Certainly we should.

But then there is the American novelist William Faulkner, whose art mined some of the sorest chapters of American history - slavery, civil war, racism. “The past is not dead,” he wrote. “In fact, it’s not even past.”

*The writer is former chief editor of the JoongAng Daily.

by Harold Piper
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