South Korea stops just short of blaming North for sinking

SEOUL Tue May 4, 2010 6:25am EDT

1 of 2. A man reads mourning messages placed on portraits of the deceased sailors from the sunken South Korean naval corvette Cheonan, in central Seoul May 4, 2010.

Credit: Reuters/Lee Jae-Won

SEOUL (Reuters) - South Korean President Lee Myung-bak said on Tuesday the sinking of a warship in which 46 sailors were killed was no accident but he stopped short of blaming North Korea and made clear he was not about to order a revenge strike.

Senior government officials privately make little secret of their belief that the reclusive neighbor deliberately torpedoed the 1,200-tonne Cheonan on March 26 near their disputed border in retaliation for a naval firefight last year in which the South bested the North.

"One sure fact is that the Cheonan did not sink because of a simple accident," Lee Myung-bak told a meeting of his top military commanders in a nationally televised speech.

The issue casts something of a cloud over this week's visit by North Korea's iron ruler Kim Jong-il to China, the only major power he can count on to prop up the isolated state's broken economy and his own family's more than 60-year grip on power.

International investigators are still examining the reason for the explosion that sank the ship but the government has already said it came from outside the vessel, which leaves little other explanation than a North Korean attack.

But Lee avoided directly accusing Pyongyang and also underscored that this was not something to be resolved alone by Seoul.

"As soon as the incident occurred I felt immediately that, along with relations between South and North Korea, that it was an international problem."

"When the international joint investigation group reveals the reason for the accident, the world will know. After the reason is found, there will be firm and definite action taken."

His government has already said if the North was the culprit it would raise the matter with the United Nations Security Council.

That could put China, as one of the five permanent members of the council, in something of a bind.

Analysts say Beijing is willing to support Kim Jong-il rather than risk instability on its border from the violent implosion of the impoverished state. But it did back international sanctions after the North's last nuclear test in 2009.

The issue is also fraught with risk for President Lee.

A strike against the North would raise the possibility of a broader conflict which the South would almost certainly win, with the help of U.S. military in the region, but in the process frighten away investors and damage Asia's fourth biggest economy.

He also needs to be seen at home as successfully handling the aftermath of the attack ahead of local elections in June, which could determine whether he serves the rest of his single five-year term as a lame-duck leader, unable to push through his economic and social reform agenda.

So far, his popularity ratings have been relatively high.

And much of the criticism for a slow response to the sinking has been channeled toward the military.

Implying that he too saw there were flaws, Lee in his speech promised to set up a body, reporting to him, to look into national security.

(Additional reporting by Christine Kim)

We welcome comments that advance the story through relevant opinion, anecdotes, links and data. If you see a comment that you believe is irrelevant or inappropriate, you can flag it to our editors by using the report abuse links. Views expressed in the comments do not represent those of Reuters. For more information on our comment policy, see
Comments (5)
AKSteve wrote:
Of course the DPRK torpedoed the ship. The whole world knows it.

May 04, 2010 1:25am EDT  --  Report as abuse
compsci wrote:
@AKSteve – you know, you really should be the President of South Korea. Then you could tell them. You could really give it to the North Koreans…

Better, I say, to wait and see. Wait for the solid proof. If it’s there, confront the North. If not, improve defensive measures and military planning; and wait for the smoking gun, the incontrovertible evidence from the other side before pulling the trigger. Wait for the kind of evidence that would shame any ordinary conscientious objector.

If only the USA and Britain had done that with Iraq in 2003.

May 04, 2010 4:49am EDT  --  Report as abuse
hadas wrote:
From the way the Cheonan split in half, it appears to be the result of an underwater, magnetic, hull-mounted limpet mine, not a torpedo. It was probably set with a timer or other actuator since a remote detonator would be difficult to access underwater while the ship was at sea.

It could have been inserted by North Korean navy special forces either in the Cheonan’s home port of Pyongtaek or while the ship was underway. Clearly, it would have been easier to put the mine in place while the ship was in port. Pyongtaek is only 50 miles away from the capital city of Seoul and most South Koreans know there are many North Korean sleepers in South Korea.

May 04, 2010 9:35am EDT  --  Report as abuse
This discussion is now closed. We welcome comments on our articles for a limited period after their publication.