BY Steve Herman of VOA News from Seoul – Government auditors in South Korea say an investigation has revealed the country’s military chief was absent from duty the night of the March 26 attack on a naval ship and then tried to cover that up. Overall, auditors accuse the military of bungled crisis management in reacting to the ship’s sinking, which is blamed on North Korea.
The audit of the South Korean military’s response to the sinking of the Cheonan has produced a stinging condemnation of the country’s top commanders and the military response to the incident.
The Board of Audit and Inspection says General Lee Sang-eui, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, was asleep after a drinking session during the time he claimed to have been in the command center ordering forces on high alert.
The report also contends that critical reports sent up the chain of command were delayed or distorted, including early information from the Cheonan that its officers believed they had been hit by a torpedo.
Another South Korean patrol ship, the Sokcho, which was in the area, informed the Second Fleet it responded by firing at a suspected partly surfaced North Korean submarine. Instead, fleet officers allegedly ordered the Sokcho to formally report that it had shot at a flock of birds.
Security analysts say the audit reveals a reaction to the crisis riddled with tardy responses, excuses and cover-ups by a military ill-prepared for an attack.
Baek Seung-joo, a director of the Korea Institute of Defense Analyses, says the investigation confirms why the South Korean people mistrusted the military’s response to the Cheonan sinking.
The Defense Ministry says a big reshuffle of commanders will take place next week. The audit board recommends that 25 officers, including 12 top commanders, be reprimanded.
Professor Choi Jong-cheol of the Korea National Defense University predicts General Lee will have to resign. But he contends it will not be feasible to remove so many other high-ranking commanders.
Choi says it makes sense that the chairman of the Joint Chiefs would be replaced. But the others being scrutinized are the critical commanders in case war should erupt, so it would be unprecedented to dismiss them all.
The board says a significant number of military secrets were leaked to the media covering the Cheonan sinking or issued in military news releases. Auditors indicate that some of their findings of fault are even more extensive than can be revealed without further compromising South Korean national security.
South Korea, along with a number of other nations, blames the sinking of the Cheonan on a torpedo fired by a North Korean submarine. Forty-six South Korean sailors died on the Cheonan.
The incident has significantly raised tension on the Korean peninsula. The two Koreas in the early 1950’s battled to an inconclusive truce but have never signed a peace treaty.