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[Editorial] Clarify the position

Panel calls off reopening of Cheonan sinking case after survivors protest

A presidential commission decided in an emergency meeting Friday to reject a petition to reinvestigate the case of the Cheonan, a South Korean naval warship that was sunk by North Korea in 2010.

In doing so, it overturned its earlier decision.

On Dec. 14 the Presidential Truth Commission on Deaths in the Military decided to revisit the case as petitioned by Shin Sang-cheol, who was on the Cheonan sinking investigation team. The commission judged that Shin met the eligibility requirements to file a petition -- a witness or a person who has heard evidence directly from a witness. But the bereaved families and survivors of the sinking strongly opposed the reinvestigation, so the commission reversed its decision. This time it determined unanimously that Shin was not eligible to submit a petition.

The launch of the reinvestigation was made public belatedly on Wednesday, through news media, sparking outrage among surviving crew members of the warship and families of the fallen soldiers.

If they had not spoken out on Thursday and demanded an immediate retraction, the commission would have proceeded with the reinvestigation.

Shin’s eligibility to file a petition is obviously in question.

When the Cheonan went down near the western inter-Korean sea border on March 26, 2010, following a surprise torpedo attack by North Korea, 46 of the 104 sailors aboard the warship died.

A civilian-military joint investigation team announced in June 2010 that the battleship had been split in half by an explosion and sunk in the darkness. They concluded that the explosion was caused by a torpedo fired from a small North Korean submarine. The South Korean Navy found evidence -- the propellers, a propulsion motor, and a steering section of a torpedo apparently made by North Korea -- along the seabed close to the site of the sinking. Seventy-three experts from five countries -- South Korea, the US, Britain, Australia and Sweden -- participated in the investigation. All of the deceased sailors were treated as war dead.

And yet Shin, a civilian member of the investigation team recommended by the then-opposition Democratic Party, has challenged that conclusion. He embraces the conspiracy theory that the warship was not hit by a North Korean torpedo, but collided with a US warship after running aground. He has alleged groundlessly that the South Korean military delayed rescue operations on purpose and that the markings on the North Korean torpedo debris appeared to have been written by someone in South Korea.

From the beginning, he had no interest in discovering the facts. He tried to rile up the public and attacked the South Korean government and military with absurd conspiracy theories.

Nonetheless, the commission believed his absurd allegations and decided to reinvestigate the sinking. One must question if he had some political motive for wanting to reframe the case and exempt North Korea from responsibility.

During an annual event in March last year to remember the South Korean troops who died defending the country against North Korea’s provocations, President Moon Jae-in was approached suddenly by the mother of a fallen sailor from the Cheonan and asked him to say who sank the warship. Moon replied: “Is it the government position that it was North Korea’s work? There is no change in the government position.” However, Moon has not declared officially as president that “North Korea sank the Cheonan.”

The Moon administration invited North Korea to the closing ceremony of the 2018 PyeongChang Winter Olympic Games in South Korea, then welcomed a controversial visit by North Korean Gen. Kim Yong-chol, whom the South blames for masterminding the attack on the Cheonan, as chief of the North’s high-level delegation. Moon treated Kim hospitably.

It would be hard to say that the commission’s obsession with the reinvestigation of the Cheonan sinking has nothing to do with the Moon administration’s attitude toward North Korea.

To root out absurd theories that incriminate the South Korean military for the Cheonan sinking, Cheong Wa Dae needs to say clearly that it was North Korea’s work. Also, the commission should apologize for hurting the bereaved families and survivors.