South Koreans, mourning Cheonan sinking, eye North with suspicion

South Koreans ended five days of mourning with a funeral for the 46 sailors killed in the still-unexplained Cheonan sinking last month. Many Koreans are struggling with how to respond if North Korea is found to have played a role in the attack on the naval vessel.

Ahn Young-joon/AP
Survivors from the sunken South Korean naval ship Cheonan carry portraits of the 46 deceased sailors during a funeral service at the country's national cemetery in Daejeon, south of Seoul, South Korea, Thursday.

South Korea on Thursday laid to rest 46 sailors killed in the unexplained sinking of a warship last month, as Koreans wrestled with how the country should respond if North Korea is proved responsible.

Since the Korean peninsula split decades ago, South Koreans and their governments have tried to balance seeking reconciliation and taking a firm line against their hostile neighbor.

President Lee Myung-bak and his wife were among the thousands gathered for the funeral, which was held at a naval base south of Seoul. With TV stations broadcasting footage of the victims’ family members openly wailing and sobbing, it marked an emotional end to a five-day national mourning period.

What happens next is an open question. The cause of the explosion that split the Cheonan, a 1,200-ton naval corvette, in two, is still being investigated by a team of international experts examining the retrieved wreckage. And though the South Korean government has vowed to take strong countermeasures, it has avoided accusing the North.

Pointing fingers at North Korea

Many South Koreans, however, are already convinced that their neighbor is the culprit.

“When I first saw it on the news, I immediately thought, ‘It’s North Korea,’ ” says Park Sang-ik, owner of a fried chicken restaurant.

Even if the investigation is inconclusive, everyone will know North Korea was involved, he says. “It wasn’t Japan.”

Choi Doo-young thinks the truth probably won’t ever be let out, because doing so could prove disastrous for the South’s economy.

“If it turns out North Korea was behind it, all the foreign investors will leave,” says Mr. Choi, who works for his family’s auto-parts trading company.

Choi says he’s even prepared for the possibility of war.

“I’m not sure how other young people feel, but if I got the call from my country, then I would go to war,” Choi says.

“My dad even said he would let me take time off from the company,” he adds, half-jokingly. “He would want to go too.”

Losing patience

Choi’s remarks are indicative of how South Korean attitudes toward the North have changed since two consecutive Seoul administrations championed a “sunshine” policy of engaging their neighbor.

Kim Jong-dae, editor of the Korean-language monthly Diplomacy & Defense In Focus, says South Koreans are growing weary of Pyongyang’s caustic rhetoric.

Recent news that North Korea has seized South Korean-owned buildings at a joint mountain resort on its soil, once an emblem of reconciliation, has also shaped attitudes toward the regime, Mr. Kim says.

What recourse?

If the North is found to be responsible for the Cheonan sinking, it’s unlikely that it would lead to all-out war, Kim says. But it could lead to the beginning of a new cold war with small-scale “local conflicts,” he adds. “This is a very dangerous situation.”

He thinks South Koreans would demand that their government take harsh economic action against Pyongyang, such as cutting off trade or closing a joint factory complex. They would also want an apology, Kim says, something the North has never offered.

“We have given them so much, but we get nothing in return but pain,” says Kim Kyoung-ja, expressing frustration about governments offering aid and incentives to North Korea despite its constant flouting of agreements.

Ms. Kim, who runs a convenience store, is pessimistic about the South’s options in responding if North Korea is found to have caused the sinking. “We can’t go to war,” she says. “It would be good if North Korea acknowledged what it did and apologized. But that won’t happen.”


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