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.

By , Correspondent

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    The stern of the South Korean Cheonan ship is docked on a barge off Baengnyeongdo island near the maritime border with North Korea, northwest of Seoul, Friday.
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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.

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.”

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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.

“We did not take any action,” he says. “I do not think the government can have such a response. The government cannot do a lot.”

Ryoo acknowledges, though, that South Koreans are angry at the failure of South Korean forces to have been able to prevent whatever it was that blew up the vessel, a 1,200-ton corvette named the Cheonan. That vessel, and others like it, have been on constant patrol for years just south of the Northern Limit Line in the West or Yellow Sea, below which the South insists all North Korean vessels are banned.

He expects government will try to fend off popular outrage by upgrading defenses. “The government will be willing to supplement the current military defense system in a crisis situation,” he says. “This incident can be a useful opportunity to improve the system. It is a very serious lesson.”

Don't disrupt economic progress

A major consideration, though, is that no South Korean leader can afford to jeopardize the country’s steady economic progress. While much of the rest of the world has been writhing in economic malaise, the South Korean economy continues to grow. The gross national product this year is now expected to increase by 5 percent over that of last year.

“In the past decades after the Korean War, we have had many provocations,” says Ryoo, “but we still achieved rapid economic growth.”

Given that accomplishment, however, the sense among many Koreans is the Lee government will find a reason not to hold North Korea definitively responsible for the Cheonan incident. Investigators, for instance, may conclude that the wreckage still does not offer irrefutable evidence that the vessel was torn apart by a North Korean mine or torpedo.

“Of course President Lee is trying to cover up,” argues Jung Han-jin, a businessman. “I don’t think he’s going to expose the real trouble. It will have too much impact on his popularity. It’s not only embarrassing, it’s a serious hole in our defenses.”

Lee Chong-chang, a retired ambassador, believes Lee has wanted to play down the explosion for the sake of his role as a global leader.

“He’s worried about the G-20 summit,” says Mr. Lee, referring to the gathering of the leaders of the leading 20 economic powers that Lee will host here in November.”That’s a big mistake. This is nonsense.”

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