Why South Korea hesitant to blame North Korea in Cheonan ship sinking
South Korean investigators cited an 'external explosion' in the sinking of the Cheonan three weeks ago. The government is moving cautiously toward blaming North Korea, though it appears keen to avoid an escalating crisis.
Seoul, South Korea
Top South Korean officials moved inexorably Friday toward blaming North Korea for the sinking of a Navy ship three weeks ago, in a case in which many see the government's integrity and judgment in the balance.Skip to next paragraph
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While South Korea’s defense minister warned of “a grave national security issue,” the government clearly hoped to avoid an escalating crisis that might jeopardize economic success as well as the ability of President Lee Myung-bak to govern effectively.
The government “keeps saying there will be a firm response,” says Han Sung-joo, a former foreign minister and ambassador to the United States, “but that doesn’t mean a military reaction or an eye-for-eye response.”
Defense Minister Kim Tae-young sought to end suspicions among South Koreans of a cover-up as investigators sifted through the wreckage of the stern of the ship in which dozens of sailors were trapped. The bodies of most of the 46 victims were recovered from that section, which broke off in the explosion, while 58 others in the forward portion escaped.
Yoon Duk-yong, one of the lead investigators, said the ship seemed to have been sunk by “an external explosion,” not by ammunition or fuel blowing up. A former South Korean submarine captain, Jung Sung, wrote in a newspaper here that it was “highly likely that a torpedo fired from a submarine or mine destroyed the ship.”
Mr. Kim promised to make public the results of the investigation “without leaving a dot of suspicion” – and then “work out the next step in a clear and stern manner.”
Unease over 'next step'
It’s that “next step,” however, that leaves many Koreans suspicious and wary.
“The South Korean government faces a dilemma,” says Ryoo Kihl-jae, professor at the University of North Korean Studies here. “We want countermeasures, but now we have just tensions. Maybe the government is in a very narrow space and doesn’t have lots of choice.”
Mr. Ryoo cites a long history of North Korean provocations. These range from a raid in early 1968 by North Korean troops on the Blue House, the center of presidential power in Seoul, to the assassination of 16 South Koreans and three Burmese by a bomb intended for South Korea’s former president, Chun Doo-hwan, on a visit to Burma in October 1983.