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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.

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“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.”

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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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