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South Korea to officially blame North Korea for March torpedo attack on warship

South Korea says North Korea is responsible for the torpedo attack that killed 46 sailors aboard the Cheonan in March.

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By John Pomfret and Blaine Harden
Wednesday, May 19, 2010

South Korea will formally blame North Korea on Thursday for launching a torpedo at one of its warships in March, causing an explosion that killed 46 sailors and heightened tensions in one of the world's most perilous regions, U.S. and East Asian officials said.

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South Korea concluded that North Korea was responsible for the attack after investigators from Australia, Britain, Sweden and the United States pieced together portions of the ship at the port of Pyeongtaek, 40 miles southwest of Seoul. The Cheonan sank on March 26 after an explosion rocked the 1,200-ton vessel as it sailed on the Yellow Sea off South Korea's west coast.

The officials, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because South Korea has yet to disclose the findings of the investigation, said subsequent analysis determined that the torpedo was identical to a North Korean torpedo that South Korea had obtained.

Of the countries aiding South Korea in its inquiry, officials said that Sweden had been the most reluctant to go along with the findings but that when the evidence was amassed, it too agreed that North Korea was to blame. A spokesman for the Swedish Embassy declined to comment.

South Korea's conclusion underscores the continuing threat posed by North Korea and the intractable nature of the dispute between the two nations. South Korean President Lee Myung-bak must respond forcefully to the attack, analysts said, but not in a way that would risk further violence from North Korea, whose artillery could -- within minutes -- devastate greater Seoul, which has a population of more than 20 million. Lee is in his third year in office, and his party faces crucial local elections in June.

On Monday, North Korea for the first time directly denied that it was involved in the Cheonan's sinking. "We will not tolerate the confrontations and warmongering schemes of the puppet regime of South Korea," said Yang Hyong-sop, vice president of the Presidium of the Supreme People's Assembly.

South Korea's report will present a challenge to China. The Chinese government enraged South Korea by waiting almost a month to express its condolences for the loss of life and, analysts and officials said, has seemed intent on sheltering North Korea from criticism.

China hosted North Korean leader Kim Jong Il this month on his first visit to the country since 2004, just days after Chinese President Hu Jintao met with South Korea's Lee. South Korean officials later said they were hurt that their Chinese counterparts kept secret Kim's impending visit and then indicated publicly that China would continue aiding North Korea.

China is North Korea's biggest trading partner and largest investor, and its support is crucial in propping up the country's economy.

China has called on both parties to remain calm, but its fence-sitting risks damaging its ties with South Korea, East Asian officials said. "China wants to be a wise giant treating all parties the same," said a senior diplomat. "But somebody committed murder here. This is ridiculous. This is a barometer for China. We are watching how they respond."

To that end, South Korea will request that the U.N. Security Council take up the issue in an effort to tighten sanctions on North Korea, the officials said. The United States has indicated it would support such an action, U.S. officials said. President Obama and Lee spoke via telephone on Monday, according to the White House. Lee briefed Obama on the probe, the White House said, and the two "committed to follow the facts of the investigation wherever they lead."

The Obama administration is also leaning toward relisting North Korea as a sponsor of terrorism, a move that would open the door for even more sanctions that could strike at the heart of North Korea's economy.


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