April 19, 2010 / 3:26 AM / 10 years ago

South Korea's Lee vows to root out navy sinking culprit

SEOUL (Reuters) - A tearful South Korean President Lee Myung-bak vowed on Monday to find out what caused last month’s deadly navy ship sinking, but avoided direct references to neighboring North Korea, which many believe was the culprit.

South Korea's President Lee Myung-bak wipes his eyes, as he delivers a speech to the nation about the sunken naval ship Cheonan, at the presidential Blue House in Seoul April 19, 2010. REUTERS/Jo Bo-Hee/Yonhap

The reclusive North at the weekend denied it had anything to do with the sinking of the Cheonan navy corvette, near a disputed sea border on the long-divided peninsula. It accused Lee of using the incident to try to drum up support for his ruling party in local elections in June.

“This I promise to you. As your president, I will go to the very end to uncover every detail of the cause of the sinking of the Cheonan,” Lee said in a nationally-televised speech.

The conservative president, who has seen relations with the impoverished North turn increasingly chilly after he ended years of aid from Seoul, wiped away tears as he read with a shaking voice the names of the 46 sailors who died in the explosion.

Analysts say if Pyongyang is shown to have torpedoed the ship, a version already raised as a possibility by the defense minister, there is little South Korea itself can do, aware that a military response is more likely to hurt its own economy and bolster the North’s iron ruler Kim Jong-il at home.

South Korean Foreign Minister Yu Myung-hwan all but admitted the government’s options were limited when he said on Sunday that if investigations proved the North sank the ship, the government would raise the issue with the U.N. Security Council.

The issue comes at a sensitive time for Lee who will want, ahead of the June elections, to head off suggestions by his political opponents that the military under his watch was ill-prepared for such an event.

A weak showing at those elections could hamstring Lee’s attempts to push more reforms through parliament in the final three years of his term, a period which in recent history has seen the incumbent president become a lame duck.

“When we have unification (with the North) and there is true peace and prosperity on this land, we will once again remember your sacrifice,” he said.

The reference to unification, the nearest Lee came to mentioning his prickly neighbor, may have been be an indication he had not ruled out the North’s involvement in the sinking.

The South has said the blast that sank the vessel near the tense border that separates the two Koreas was caused by an external explosion, thrusting suspicion on the North.

Lee called a rare meeting with leaders of the opposition for Tuesday to try to put aside politics at a time of mourning and during the investigation, involving experts from several countries, including the United States.

The sinking could also complicate the resumption of stalled international talks on ending North Korea’s atomic arms program in return for aid to prop up its broken economy, experts said.

Editing by Jonathan Thatcher and Ron Popeski

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