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A Bit on Cheonan and Radical Uncertainty…

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Radical Contra and blowback have expressed skepticism as to North Korea’s purported role in the sinking of the Cheonan.  Blowback:

So South Korea has North Korean torpedos. So it is possible that the Cheonan was sunk by a North Korean torpedo fired from a South Korean sub. At the time of the Gulf of Tonkin incident, how many people in the West believed it never happened? None. So I am not surprised that Sweden is being cautious.

As for the other parties involved in the investigation (Australia, Britain, and the United States) neither of the first two is independent of the last, in fact they are well known lackeys of the US who always do what they are told.

Radical Contra (also here):

Like some other commentators, I’m skeptical. It’s almost becoming a just-so story – what Farley calls a “nice touch” only makes it more apparent.

As someone who lives in South Korea, too, quoting any South Korean paper is a dangerous gamble. Most are so corrupt, conservative, and their checkered histories littered with their own treason, that it’s just too lazy to trust them. What about all the leaks before this – not counting that this rumor is a leak, too. Finally, it’s election time in Korea.

How much more proof of a convenient lie do we need?

As I suggested in two different comment threads, it is entirely possible that a) the South Koreans sank Cheonan with a North Korean torpedo, or b) the South Koreans manufactured evidence of North Korean responsibility with sufficient cleverness to fool even the skeptical Swedes. Indeed, it’s almost impossible, given conventional methods of evidence collection, to prove that the South Koreans haven’t manufactured the entire incident. Moreover, it would hardly be the first time that a government has lied about such a thing.

Then again, it’s also possible that North Korea sank the Cheonan with a North Korean torpedo. I’m not sure what additional evidence could be produced to confirm this theory; I suppose that we could have signed confessions by the North Korean officer that fired the torpedo, the North Korean official who authorized the attack, and so forth. In the case of an actual North Korean attack, it’s exceedingly unlikely that such evidence would ever actually become available to us. This is to say that if your evidentiary standard for believing North Korea is responsible requires a North Korean confession, it is unlikely to be met even in the case of North Korean culpability. Constructions such as “beyond a reasonable doubt” or “preponderance of the evidence” aren’t particularly useful here, because the evidentiary standard is still unclear; what does “beyond a reasonable doubt” mean in the context of South Korean government claims? On the one hand, it’s hard for me to see what additional evidence of North Korean culpability that South Korea could reasonably be expected to provide. On the other hand, South Korea is providing all of the evidence, and could be falsifying all of it.

I don’t mean this to sound flip; there’s a genuine epistemic dilemma here. Governments lie habitually, making it difficult to evaluate contradictory government claims. But if we make the leap of faith associated with believing a) that there was a Cheonan, and b) that it sank, then we’re left with this competing set of claims about what precisely happened. The evidentiary standard we set is extremely important for policy, because a standard set too high means de facto agreement with North Korean protestations of innocence. At the same time, South Korea probably should face a more rigorous evidentiary standard, since it’s making a positive claim about North Korean behavior, and also because accepting South Korean claims might generate violent or otherwise costly action. It’s also fair to say that states (not just North Korea, obviously) exploit this uncertainty strategically in order to undertake actions which they wish to avoid taking full responsibility for.

Finally, I should note that I don’t really find this to be a hard case. When North Korea and South Korea disagree, I’m heavily inclined to favor the South Korean claims, in part because I believe the North has a far more robust history of deception. I don’t find South Korean motives for such a deception all that clear; indeed, as I’ve suggested previously, an accident would have been politically easier for Seoul to manage. I certainly don’t believe that the United States is interested in picking a fight on the Korean Peninsula right now. Moreover, it seems to me that South Korea has been exceedingly cautious about its approach to the evidence, to an extent that’s almost unheard of in international politics. And so while I’ll happily concede that I’m the useful idiot of the Seoul government if it turns out South Korea manufactured the whole thing, at this point I’m satisfied enough with the evidence pointing to North Korean responsibility. However, the dilemma is real, and is important to take into account when we evaluate, for example, claims that Iran shipped EFPs to Iraqi insurgents in copious amounts during the height of the insurgency, or claims about the nature of Syria’s “Box on the Euphrates.”

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