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.

Lim Hun-jung/Yonhap/Reuters
Salvage team members and rescue workers put a part of the sunken warship Cheonan on a barge after they lifted it with a giant crane, off Baengnyeongdo island, northwest of Seoul, Thursday.

The South Korean warship that was torn apart by an explosion nearly three weeks ago was hoisted to the surface Thursday amid growing suspicions that North Korea was responsible. The blast left 46 sailors dead in the aft of the ship, while 58 escaped the much larger forward portion, which stayed afloat long enough for them to don safety gear and leap into the cold waters of the West Sea, also known as the Yellow Sea.

Officials said publicly that they're waiting for the findings of an international team as pressure mounts for the government to state just what happened, who did it, and why.

“We do not know exactly if it was a torpedo or a mine,” says Song Tae Sung, president of the Sejong Institute, an influential think tank with close ties to the government. “We say there is some connection with North Korea," he continued, reflecting the widely held view of Koreans scrutinizing daily and hourly reports of the episode.

TV images of the raising of the ship reveal little beyond a gaping hole in the side caused by a gigantic blast that ripped it open so wide that the stern sank in less than one minute. The hole appears to be the sort that could have been blasted by a torpedo or a floating mine, but officials are not saying so.

While the government resists pointing the finger at North Korea, analysts see the sinking of the Cheonan, launched in 1989, as a bargaining ploy and an act of revenge.

“It is 99 percent certain the ship was sunk by North Korea,” argues Kim Kisam, a former South Korean intelligence agent now living in the United States. Mr. Kim believes a North Korean submarine may have been responsible.

South Korean president critical of North

President Lee Myung-bak, unlike the two presidents who led South Korea for a decade before his inauguration more than two years ago, has been highly critical of the North.

Mr. Lee has repeatedly said North Korea has to give up its nuclear program as a precondition for resumption of the aid given the North before he took office. His hand may be strengthened since South Korea was chosen at the Global Summit on Nuclear Strategy in Washington this week as the host of the next such summit in 2012.

That year is significant as the 100th anniversary of the birth of Kim Jong-Il’s father, Kim Il-Sung, who died in July 1994 but remains officially the North’s “eternal president.” North Koreans celebrated the 98th anniversary of his birth on Thursday with fireworks, rallies, and electronic signs saying “General Kim Il-Sung is our sun” and “we will live forever with the president,” according to Pyongyang’s Korean Central News Agency.

Difficult to retaliate

Analysts say Lee may be reluctant to hold North Korea responsible if only because South Korea might then have to retaliate.

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.”

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