A Discussion with Professor Katharine Moon: A Different Perspective

Map of Yeonpyeong

The blue line indicates the oceanic border as understood by South Korea; the red line indicates the border as insisted by North Korea.

CHRISTINE OH (edited by Daisy Chang)

February 8th, 2011—Professor Katharine Moon of Political Science at Wellesley College sits comfortably in her chair, wearing a gray ANKHR sweater. She is the unofficial advisor for the Wellesley student organization, Advocates for North Korean Human Rights (ANKHR). ANKHR invited her to speak at a casual dinner-and-discussion to address a question that has been on all of our minds: What the hell is going on with North Korea?

Almost thirty students are gathered in a big living room, intently listening to her speak. She starts out by asking a familiar and frequently asked question: To whom do you listen when it comes to North Korea, and how to we know who’s right? From its governmental system to its organizational structure, everything about North Korea is foggy compared to the relative transparence of other nations.

So, what do we know about North Korea? Her answer: Well, not much. And what we do know, we must always question how we know it. Whatever information we have about the country, she says, must always be questioned.

Take the Cheonan sinking incident that happened last March. South Korea formed a Joint Civilian-Military Investigation Group (JIG) with teams of experts from the United States, Australia, the U.K., and Sweden to conduct investigations. Their assessment was that “a strong underwater explosion generated by the detonation of a homing torpedo below and to the left of the gas turbine room caused the Republic of Korea Ship (ROKS) “Cheonan” to split apart and sink.” (More information about this report can be found at http://www.korea.net/detail.do?guid=46843.)

According to the Russians, however, the results of the JIG do not match up with their findings. While the JIG claims that the torpedo had been under the ship two to three days before the explosion, the Russians have reason to believe that it had been under the sea six months prior to the Cheonan incident. Difference much? There are also those in the U.S. intelligence committee who are skeptical about these findings; they argue that the torpedo could not have split the ship in two the way that the Joint Investigation Group claims it did. Mysterious.

There are always challengers and outliers, Moon remarks. Then she brings up the fact that the Swedish team did not actually want to sign off on JIG’s report. (The Swedes have always been the neutral party between the two Koreas; they have a particular role on the Korean peninsula.  For decades since the armistice was signed, they have sent a few Swedish and Swiss soldiers—from neutral countries—to serve as observers of the armistice, basically to see that it was being kept. It was the Swedish embassy in NK that vouched for the two reporters’ health and also mediated between governments for a resolution.)

Now what about the Yeonpyeong Island incident? Why did it happen? Most speculate reasons relating to succession, that Kim Jong-un was attempting to show strength and leadership to a cynical military. Some experts suggest that Kim was letting his artillery soldiers play around (Moon conveyed her reservations about this idea); others think it may have been the country’s customary call for attention that they needed more aid.

Moon states that we must understand context before we can even attempt to judge the situation. With the aid of a color-coded map (shown above), she fills us in on the history of the island, explaining how its location in the Yellow Sea is a boiling hotspot—smack in the middle of naval territory that has been disputed since the Korean War. Then she brings up the fact that North Korea had been sending warnings to South Korean prior to their artillery firing. No one brought up the U.S.-ROK planned military exercises as a possible provocations for the attack. She also points out that North Koreans have always been reliable with their warnings. So why did they go ahead with everything?

To go further, if the situation were reversed, and the DPRK was doing live-fire exercises close to the South Korean borders, and shells fell in South Korean coastal lines, would South Korea stay still? No.

Here is a timeline (from Wikipedia) of the Yeonpyeong shelling incident that may bring more light to the situation:

8:20AM: North Koreans warn ROK to halt military exercises

10:00AM: South Korea takes an hour and forty minutes to decide what to do. They continue the exercises.

2:34PM: North Korea shells Yeonpyeong (after four and a half hours).

2:38PM: South Korea deploys F-16 jet fighters to the Yeonpyeong Island and returns fire (after four minutes). What happened on North Korean soil?

2:47PM: Other forces are deployed to shell North Korea.

Moon’s analysis of the Cheonan and Yeonpyeong incidents and the questions she raises about them, are much different from what the media has been portraying to the public. She presents the argument that perhaps it wasn’t North Korea’s premeditated attack; it’s not a mystery as to why they ‘suddenly’ shelled the island.

So, back to her first question: Which side do we believe? Moon’s answer: “It’s possible that there is truth on both sides. I don’t know.”


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