South Korea raises sunken warship amid questions about retaliation
The South Korea raised the sunken warship Cheonan Thursday. Across South Korea, the view is growing that North Korea is responsible for a blast that killed 46 sailors.
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Difficult to retaliate
Analysts say Lee may be reluctant to hold North Korea responsible if only because South Korea might then have to retaliate.Skip to next paragraph
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The sinking “was most obviously perpetrated by North Korea,” argues Jeon Jae Wook, chief strategy officer for a scientific research firm here. “What’s wrong with the government in coping with the emergency is they’re not really talking about what to do when it becomes proven.”
Mr. Jeon says North Korean strategists carefully selected a target that was large enough to demonstrate the North’s strength in the disputed West Sea waters, but not so large as to bring about a war.
“They carefully calculated what would be tolerable in terms of numbers,” he says. ”We still have an option of a limited strike, but everyone says we may have to wait until the truth comes out.”
Choi Young-jae at the National Unification Advisory Council, which plays a consulting role for the Blue House, the center of presidential power, says “we cannot retaliate with military action,” but will have to bring the case before the United Nations and the International Court of Justice in the Hague. “Mr. Kim Jong-Il is a war criminal,” he says.
Whatever happens, the sinking of the Cheonan has completely stymied the protracted process of persuading North Korea to return to six-party talks on its nuclear weapons program.
North Korea appeared to be about to return to the talks, last held in December 2008, before the ship went down while on routine patrol south of the Northern Limit Line, set by the UN Command in 1956, below which North Korean boats cannot venture.
North Korea refuses to recognize the line, and in recent years has challenged its validity in bloody clashes, most recently in November when a South Korean corvette similar to the one that was sunk poured cannon fire onto a North Korean patrol boat, sending it back to port in flames. A North Korean boat was sunk with possibly 40 sailors aboard in June 1999, and six South Korean sailors were killed when North Koreans opened fire on their patrol boat in June 2002. Both battles were in the same area.
North Korea has remained officially silent on the incident, but groups working on behalf of North Korean defectors in South Korea are reporting that North Koreans are speculating privately that the North Korean Navy may be responsible. One defector has been widely quoted as talking about a meeting in February in which the top North Korean naval commander in the region said North Korea had to avenge the incident in November.
“North Korea is very frustrated with South Korea and wants to pressure the US,” says Choi Jin-wook, North Korean analyst at the Korea Institute of National Unification. “The six-party talks were almost agreed on, but now everything is ruined, collapsed.”
At the Sejong Institute, long-time analyst Paik Hak-soon warns that President Lee “should be very alert about disruptive aspects” of acting prematurely. “This is a very unstable situation,” he says. “People are losing trust in the government.”