South Korea's Lee calls for patience in Cheonan ship sinking investigation

South Korea President Lee called for patience and accuracy in the investigation into the Cheonan ship sinking investigation, days after his defense minister said a torpedo likely caused the warship to sink.

Korea Pool/AP
A giant offshore crane arrives near the sunken Cheonan ship off South Korea's Baengnyeong Island Sunday.

South Korea President Lee Myung-bak today called for patience in the Cheonan ship sinking investigation, days after his defense minister ratcheted tensions by saying that a torpedo likely sunk the naval warship last month near the maritime boundary with North Korea.

"I believe accuracy is more important than speed in determining the cause of this kind of disaster," said Mr. Lee in a biweekly address broadcast on radio and the Internet. "We should wait patiently, although it will be painful, as a joint investigation team from the government, military, and civilians is already looking into the case."

Lee added that the investigation "shouldn't be hasty conjecture or obscure prediction" but instead "based on stern facts and concrete evidence." The address came as a month-long session of parliament begins today, with the investigation threatening to escalate tensions with the North and sideline Lee's proposals.

Already delayed by political bickering, Lee's measures could be overshadowed by concerns over North Korea's possible involvement in the sinking of the warship, reports Reuters. On Friday, without openly pointing the finger at the North, Defense Minister Kim Tae-young cited the shape of one of the cleaved ends of the Cheonan as evidence suggesting a direct torpedo hit.

"We believe there is a likely possibility for the sinking to have been because of a torpedo, but we should look at all possibilities," Mr. Kim said during a parliamentary hearing, local media reported.

On Sunday, the North accused the South's military forces of opening fire on a land border outpost, a claim the South denied.

Rescue operation ends

Over the weekend, rescue divers found the body of a South Korean Navy sailor, one of the 46 who went missing when the 1,200-ton ship was ripped in half and sank in waters near the North Korean border on March 26.

The body of Senior Chief Petty Officer Nam Ki-hoon was the first to be found among the missing sailors. Shortly after he was proclaimed dead on Saturday, family members of the sailors requested that the dangerous rescue operation be called off.

The military has accepted the families’ request, saying it will now focus on pulling the halves of the vessel from the ocean floor to be examined – an effort estimated to take more than a week.

US forces to assist in salvage operation

On Monday, Gen. Walter Sharp, who commands US forces in South Korea, said the United States would continue to assist in the salvage operation, Yonhap News Agency reported.

Rescuers and family members had initially hoped the missing sailors might have survived on a pocket of air inside part of the sunken ship’s stern. Attempts to access the vessel last week were hindered by bad weather and strong underwater currents. One military diver died in the attempted rescue.

Also Saturday, the South Korean Coast Guard identified the body of two crew members of a fishing vessel that disappeared Friday night. The vessel, which had a crew of nine including two Indonesians, was one of several ships helping search for clues to the Cheonan's sinking.

A Cambodia-registered freighter that is suspected of crashing into the fishing vessel and causing it to sink has been detained by South Korean authorities.

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