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Researchers raise doubts over SKorean ship sinking

world Updated: Jul 10, 2010 01:25 IST
South Korea

A South Korean-led investigation into the sinking of a warship near its disputed border with North Korea was inconclusive, may have contained fabricated data and should be reopened, two American-based researchers from South Korea said Friday.

An international investigation concluded in May that North Korea torpedoed the South Korean warship Cheonan in late March, killing 46 sailors. North Korea denied it launched an attack and warned that any punishment would trigger war. But Jae-jung Suh, a political scientist at Johns Hopkins University, and Seoung-hun Lee, a University of Virginia physicist, said the report issued after the investigation had numerous flaws and did not jibe with experiments they carried out to replicate the conditions caused by the type of blast that allegedly sank the ship. South Korea's military dismissed their claims as "nothing new," saying it has presented sufficient evidence of an attack. The results of the experiments conducted by the professors were "likely to be based on incorrect experimental factors," a Joint Chiefs of Staff spokesman said on condition of anonymity, citing official policy.

The international investigation concluded that the Cheonan sank after a torpedo exploded in waters about 10-20 feet (3-6 meters) away from its hull, causing a "bubble effect" and destroying the ship with its shockwaves. It said North Korea was implicated by the discovery of a torpedo fragment with "No. 1" written on it in Korean. The two researchers, however, said the report failed to sufficiently substantiate such claims. "There is no evidence that the ship was destroyed by the bubble effect, or of shockwaves," Suh told reporters at a news conference in Tokyo. "We're not sure where it happened, we're not sure when it happened. The only conclusion that can be drawn is that there was no outside explosion."

Suh is the director of the Korean studies program at Johns Hopkins and the author of several books on security issues on the Korean peninsula. Lee is based at the University of Virginia's neutron and X-ray scattering laboratory, and is an expert in the X-ray technologies used by the investigative team. Lee and Suh said X-ray data submitted in the report contained inconsistencies that "cast profound doubt" on the integrity of the data, and said the "No. 1" was written in ink that should have burned off under the intense heat of the blast, suggesting that it was fabricated. Fifty-eight sailors were rescued from the frigid Yellow Sea waters near the Koreas' maritime border but 46 perished in South Korea's worst military disaster since the end of the three-year Korean War in 1953. Though skeptics are in the minority, questions over the details of the sinking have been raised in South Korea since the report was released. South Korea's military has taken steps to dispel skepticism among some left-leaning civic groups and influential bloggers. Last month the Defense Ministry began sponsoring a series of briefings to explain the results of the investigation to the public and offer tours of the ship's wreckage.

Participants are allowed close access to the Cheonan and to blog about all matters discussed at the briefings _ an unprecedented loosening of the military's strict security protocols, according to the ministry. Seoul says the investigation turned up firm evidence indicating North Korea sank the ship and has been lobbying international support for punishment of its communist neighbor. After more than a month of closed-door discussions, diplomats said the U.N. Security Council was set Friday to approve a statement condemning the sinking without explicitly saying that North Korea was to blame. Lee _ who said he has received no support from North Korea _ declined to speculate on what might have caused the ship to sink if not a North Korean torpedo. "We do not know. Nobody knows at the moment," he said. "Grounding remains a possibility, and an accident remains a possibility. Since we cannot rule these things out, we must reopen the investigation."