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Seoul says North Korea sank Cheonan warship. Are sanctions next?

It's 'obvious' North Korea was involved in the sinking of the Cheonan warship in March, South Korea's foreign minister said Wednesday.

By Donald KirkCorrespondent / May 19, 2010

South Korean Foreign Minister Yu Myung-hwan speaks at a luncheon meeting with a group of European diplomats and business officials in Seoul, South Korea, Wednesday. Mr. Yu said it was 'obvious' that North Korea sank the Cheonan warship in March, killing 46 sailors.

Baek Sung-ryul/Yonhap/AP

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Seoul, South Korea

South Korea's foreign minister bluntly blamed the March sinking of the Cheonan warship and the death of 46 sailors on North Korea Wednesday.

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“We have the evidence,” Foreign Minister Yu Myung-hwan told the Monitor. Asked how South Korea would respond, Mr. Yu promised “very firm action” but avoided specifics.

Yu's comments came a day before the release of the results of an inquiry into the sinking of the Cheonan. But with Seoul already making it clear that North Korea fired the torpedo that sank the Cheonan the question is: What will the South do about it?

“To release the outcome of the investigation is easy,” says Kim Tae-woo, senior North Korea analyst at the Korea Institute. “What to do after that is the most difficult part.”

Seoul is now likely to seek international action, perhaps by asking for tougher sanctions on North Korea from the United Nations Security Council.

South Korean defense officials are confident they have sufficient evidence to convince skeptics who have accused the government here of rushing to judgment against the North. Defense officials say investigators discovered the propeller blade of a torpedo with a North Korean serial number on it as well as traces of an explosive used in North Korean torpedoes discovered off the west coast seven years ago.

But when it comes to options, Mr. Kim is certain of only one thing. “I would exclude the two extreme scenarios," he says. "The first is doing nothing, and the second is a tit-for-tat retaliation.”

To the United Nations

Between those unlikely extremes, he and other analysts expect that South Korea and the United States will bring the attack before the UN Security Council in a demand for tougher sanctions beyond those imposed by the UN after North Korea’s second nuclear test one year ago.

Besides urging the Security Council “to condemn the North Korean provocation... we need to tighten the sanctions in a way that will hurt North Korea,” said Shim Jae-hoon, a commentator on North-South Korean issues.

The role of China, North Korea’s primary source of economic and military aid, will be critical. “This case really puts China on the spot,” Mr. Shim said. “They have to join the sanctions. It will be very difficult for them to get out.”

How China will respond is probably the biggest question mark on the minds of analysts here.

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