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While President Lee Myung-bak linked the incident to North Korea in his speech at the twice-a-year meeting of the South’s top military commanders, he stopped short of accusing the North of involvement. The meeting is normally chaired by the defense minister, and Lee's presence alone revealed the heightened tensions between North and South.
"What is obvious so far is that the Cheonan did not sink due to a simple accident," Lee said, reports the Associated Press. "As soon as the incident occurred, I sensed it was a grave international and inter-Korean matter."
President Lee’s continued refusal to directly accuse the North highlights the cautious approach the South is taking toward its aggressive northern neighbor, which is led by Kim Jong-il and backed by China. His comments come as the reclusive and eccentric Kim is visiting China, and could put China in a difficult position as North Korea’s ally if North Korea is shown to have been involved.
The South has said that the warship, the Cheonan, was likely struck by a torpedo or a sea mine. It broke in two after the mysterious explosion March 26 and sank, killing 46 sailors, while 58 were rescued. Suspicion in the South has widely fallen on North Korea, which has denied responsibility. The hostile neighbors, technically still at war, have fought several naval skirmishes along their disputed maritime border.
Lee now appears to be casting the incident as an international issue.
He pledged “firm and definite” action once the international investigation of the explosion is concluded. Lee has avoided talking of a military strike, and Reuters reports that South Korea will likely refer the North to the United Nations Security Council if it decides that Pyongyang was responsible.
Ralph Cossa, head of the Pacific Forum CSIS (Center for Strategic and International Studies) in Honolulu, argues in an opinion piece in the South Korean newspaper The Korea Times that if the issue is referred to the UN Security Council and North Korea is found responsible, the response should go beyond simply levying more sanctions.
Mr. Cossa argues that the Security Council should restrict all North Korean submarines and torpedo boats to port, and allow forces from the United States and the UN in the area to attack any that ignore the restriction.
But Security Council action could put China in a difficult position. While China did back international sanctions following the North's 2009 test of a nuclear weapon, Beijing would rather support Kim Jong-il than risk instability along its border "from the violent implosion of the impoverished state," according to Reuters.
China was apparently hosting Kim on Tuesday, after he took a secret train to China over the weekend.
The Christian Science Monitor reports that the North’s leader is likely to ask his ally for economic help after a botched currency reform last year probably worsened the nation’s food shortages.