April 23, 2010 / 4:30 AM / 8 years ago

South Korea won't retaliate alone for ship sinking

SEOUL, April 23 (Reuters) - South Korea on Friday gave the clearest signal to date it had no plan to launch a revenge attack if it turns out, as widely suspected, North Korea sank one of its navy vessels last month near their disputed border.

The reclusive North says it had nothing to do with the downing of the Cheonan, which sank after an explosion, killing 46 sailors. A South Korean military intelligence report leaked to the local media said the North had almost certainly torpedoed the ship.

"Just as the investigation is being conducted with international cooperation, we’ll try to cooperate with the international community in taking necessary measures when the results are out," Yonhap News Agency quoted President Lee Myung-bak as saying.

The issue is a fraught with risks for Lee.

If he were to launch a military attack on his impoverished neighbour, it would be the South that would be hurt worse, with investors likely to take fright at the threat of conflict across the Cold War’s last frontier just as the economy is recovering fast from the global financial crisis.

Lee also needs to prevent turning the emotionally charged affair into a weapon for his political opposition at home ahead of June local elections which could, if his ruling party suffers a serious setback in the polls, damage his authority and ability to push through promised pro-business reforms.

Though the government has faced criticism for being unprepared, most of it so far has been channelled towards the military and his defence minister.

The last part of the wreck is expected to be lifted to the surface this weekend to allow an international team of investigators to find out what actually caused the explosion.

Relations between the two Koreas, still technically at war, have turned increasingly hostile since Lee took office more than two years ago, the North accusing him of deliberately ruining any chance of peaceful reunification of the peninsula that has been divided for more than half a century.

Lee this week infuriated the North, whose media routinely describes him as a traitor to Korea and the pawn of a hostile United States, by saying it should stop wasting money on grand displays and spend the money on its near-starving population.

He had been referring to last week’s huge fireworks display in the capital Pyongyang to mark the anniversary -- called the Day of the Sun -- of the birth of state founder Kim Il-sung, who died in 1994 but is its eternal president with his son the actual ruler.

Lee has ended years of generous aid and announced a plan of massive investment across the border if the North gives up building nuclear weapons -- an offer Pyongyang has rejected out of hand. (Editing by Nick Macfie)

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