South Korean Probe Won't Settle Warship Dispute

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Lee Jae-Won / AFP / Getty Images

South Korean navy personnel stand guard next to the reconstructed wreckage of the Cheonan

As South Korea prepares to release its findings that blame North Korea for sinking the warship Cheonan last March, several scientists continue to claim that the conclusions of the official investigation don't add up. The government's preliminary findings released in May were attacked as amateurish and crude by some South Korean–born scientists concerned that flawed science could be used to escalate tensions on the Korean peninsula. About 1 in 4 South Koreans share such doubts. But the top U.S. naval adviser to the probe remains steadfast in support of its conclusions.

The debate over what caused the sinking of the South Korean ship is difficult for the general public to follow, with all its discussion of acoustic signatures and electron-dispersive spectroscopy. And it certainly has echoes of conspiracy theories like those surrounding the 1963 assassination of President John F. Kennedy.

The South Korean government, aided by experts from the U.S., Australia, the U.K., Canada and Sweden, alleges that a North Korean midget submarine fired a 500-lb. torpedo at the 1,200-ton Cheonan on March 26, killing 46 South Korean seamen. But China and Russia have echoed the doubts expressed by some scientists over the official finding. While the official investigation, as detailed recently by U.S. Navy Rear Admiral Thomas Eccles, chief engineer of the Naval Sea Systems Command, harnesses several forensic techniques to eliminate all options except for a North Korean torpedo, skeptics view that logic as a house of cards that falls apart when evidence from the Cheonan is scrutinized closely.

"To me, this challenges the integrity of science," Seung-Hun Lee, a physicist at the University of Virginia, tells TIME. "They say they reached these conclusions that have enormous consequences on the political and international stage. As a scientist and scholar, I felt it was my duty to check their conclusion." Lee says bluntly that the government's conclusions are "absurd."

The residues that the governments say were caused by the blast "have nothing to do with the explosion, but are just aluminum hydroxide that can be naturally formed by corrosion when aluminum is exposed to water for a long time," Lee says. He adds that he doesn't know why Seoul and Washington would invent such a scenario to explain the sinking. "That's a political thing that's beyond me," he says.

J.J. Suh, a professor and director of Korea Studies at Johns Hopkins University's Paul H. Nitze School of Advanced International Studies in Washington, D.C., also doesn't believe the government's story. A 500-lb. torpedo would have generated at least 5,000 lb. per sq. in. of pressure on the Cheonan's hull. "The bottom of the ship does not betray any sign of being exposed to that kind of shock wave," he says. "The rest of the ship doesn't either ... even a florescent light bulb in the exposed cut area survived the explosion intact." Lee and Suh have sent a letter to the U.N. Security Council seeking a new investigation into the sinking because of their belief that the official probe is "riddled with inconsistencies."

But Eccles is sticking to the investigation's key finding that a North Korean torpedo sank the Cheonan. He was dispatched to South Korea following the sinking to devote his considerable technical expertise — he has a degree in electrical and mechanical engineering from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology — to help figure out what happened. "I can tell you conclusively that an explosion that correlates to a 250-kg maritime weapon at a placement that's ideal for breaking this ship occurred in the same place and I think at the same time as not only objective recorded information ashore, but where and when a piece of torpedo — which is a perfect correlation of a North Korean weapon of the exact same size — was found," Eccles told reporters recently.

Seismic, acoustic, physical and visual evidence all indicated that a 500-lb. torpedo broke and sank the Cheonan when it detonated between 20 ft. and 30 ft. deep and 10 ft. off the port side, Eccles said. The experts reached that conclusion on April 30, and their belief was bolstered 15 days later when pieces they believe came from the torpedo were pulled from the Yellow Sea near where the Cheonan sank. These were compared with drawings of a North Korean torpedo obtained by an unnamed intelligence source. "I can tell you that down to the size of rivets, every small and large dimension I could measure was the same as the drawing," Eccles said. "The pieces and parts were all the same — this was a perfect match."

Both sides have been arguing over the corrosion found on pieces of the purported torpedo, the meaning of handwriting on one of those pieces, the presence or lack of a water column common to torpedo blasts and whether or not the Cheonan could have run aground and broken apart. Each side sums up its opponent in pretty much the same way. "They're amateurs, and I don't think they're experts" on the type of scientific analysis performed by himself and others, Lee says. Eccles, when asked about the possibility that the Cheonan ran aground — as Lee believes might have happened — said, "The amateurs who think it has something to do with grounding are just that — amateurs."

Whether or not the release next week of the South Korean government's complete 250-page inquiry can settle the matter is doubtful. After all, the Warren Commission's investigation into JFK's killing was a mammoth 888 pages — along with 26 volumes of supporting information — and that argument has raged ever since.