SEOUL (Reuters) - South Korea has briefed the Chinese ambassador on its findings on the sinking of a navy ship widely believed to be the work of North Korea, an issue that has created tension between the two major Asian trading partners.
Seoul is sure to formally blame the North on Thursday when it announces the findings by a team of experts that includes investigators from Sweden, Australia and the United States.
China, host of on-again, off-again six-party talks aimed at reining in North Korea’s nuclear weapons program, is the reclusive state’s only major ally and is loath to penalize it for wrongs perceived in South Korea and the West.
China irritated South Korea earlier this month by hosting the North Korean leader Kim Jong-il on a rare trip abroad before the outcome of the investigation was announced.
North Korea on Wednesday repeated its denial of involvement in the sinking and threatened war, saying South Korea’s conservative government was using the incident for political gain and trying to disrupt ties between the two Koreas.
“The mad confrontation attempt by the South puppet group has left the inter-Korean ties in ruins and the catastrophe of war has been cast over the Korean nation,” the North’s official KCNA news agency quoted the Committee for the Peaceful Reunification of the Fatherland as saying in a statement.
In Washington, Kurt Campbell, assistant secretary of state for East Asia and the Pacific, declined to make substantive comments on the ship until the release of the announcement.
“The United States supports South Korea unequivocally and strongly,” he said.
Campbell said the United States played a central role in the ship investigation and that Secretary of State Hillary Clinton would discuss Korean tensions during her visit to Japan, China and South Korea in coming days.
Chinese Ambassador to South Korea Zhang Xinsen has been quoted by local media as saying there did not appear to be clear evidence the North was the culprit in the March 26 attack off the Korean peninsula’s west coast that killed 26 sailors.
Zhang was among a small group of ambassadors who were briefed on the outcome of the probe, before a larger group receives the information on Wednesday, the Foreign Ministry said.
It did not give details on Zhang’s response. There was no answer to calls made to the Chinese Embassy in Seoul.
South Korean Foreign Minister Yu Myung-hwan told a group of European businessmen the government had concluded that a torpedo sunk the ship.
“Assessments of the (investigators) indicates a strong underwater explosion generated by the detonation of a torpedo caused the Korean battle ship to split apart and sink,” he said.
When asked by reporters if the North had sunk the ship, Yonhap news agency quoted Yu as saying: “I believe that’s certainly the case.”
South Korea’s Defense Ministry took a group of journalists to a navy port on Wednesday to display the wreckage of the 1,200-tonne corvette Cheonan.
Chinese Foreign Minister Yang Jiechi told the foreign ministers of South Korea and Japan at the weekend that any conclusions must be based on scientific and objective evidence. In a more sympathetic response, Japan’s Katsuya Okada expressed his support for Seoul’s efforts to investigate the sinking.
Clinton will visit Seoul on May 26 in what analysts view as a show of solidarity with the long-time U.S. ally.
A group of defectors from the North is planning to drop 200,000 leaflets from a remote island bordering the North on Thursday, with details of the Cheonan sinking incident, a leader of the group said.
Additional reporting by Christine Kim and Paul Eckert in Washington; Editing by Paul Tait