By John Pomfret and Blaine Harden
Wednesday, May 19, 2010; A01
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.
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.
Japanese Foreign Minister Katsuya Okada told his South Korean counterpart on Monday that Japan would also support taking the issue to the Security Council, the Japanese news media reported Tuesday.
It is unclear whether Beijing would support taking the issue to the Security Council; a senior Chinese official said China would first need proof that North Korea launched the attack.
Analysts said China would be reluctant to take strong measures against North Korea because its main interest is to keep the country intact. North Korea's collapse would create hundreds of thousands of refugees and probably lead to the emergence of a Western-leaning united Korea on China's border.
"I just cannot imagine the Chinese saying, 'Okay, we agree with you. Let's go to the Security Council and condemn North Korea for their action,' " said Bonnie S. Glaser, a security specialist at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.
Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton is expected to raise the issue with China when she travels there this week. She will then go to Seoul for a half-day visit next week.
Another consequence of the report, experts predicted, is that Lee will request that the United States delay for several years a plan to pass operational control of all forces in South Korea from the United States to the South Korean military. About 28,500 U.S. troops are stationed in South Korea.
South Korea's conclusion that North Korea is responsible for the sinking of the Cheonan also means it is unlikely that talks about the North's nuclear weapons program will resume anytime soon. North Korea has twice tested what is believed to be a nuclear weapon. During Kim's trip to China last month, China pushed for an early resumption of those talks, but South Korean officials said they will return to the table only after there is a full accounting for the Cheonan attack and a policy response.
The sinking -- and the reluctance of the South to respond with an in-kind attack -- is the latest example of the raw military intimidation that North Korea has practiced for decades. With 1.2 million troops on active duty, the Korean People's Army has positioned about 70 percent of its fighting forces and firepower within 60 miles of the border with the South.
Some analysts suggested that North Korea conducted the attack to avenge the apparent defeat of its navy last November, when a firefight with a South Korean naval vessel left a North Korean patrol boat in flames and one person dead.
David Straub, a former director of the State Department's Korea desk who is now at Stanford University, said that while the Cheonan's sinking was horrendous, it marked more of a return to "normal" behavior for North Korea than a new direction.
"We tend to look at this as shocking because things have been relatively quiet for a decade or two," he said. But North Korea killed 30 sailors aboard a South Korean warship in the 1970s; in 1983, its agents were believed to have been behind a fatal bombing in Rangoon, Burma, that narrowly missed then-South Korean President Chun Doo-hwan.
What has changed, Straub said, is the Western view of North Korea. In the past, North Korean misbehavior was often rewarded with Western attention and aid from Japan and South Korea. But after North Korea conducted its second nuclear test in May 2009, "opinion changed in a fundamental way," he said.
"Before, there was a tendency of government officials to say, 'Well, maybe if we try hard enough to persuade the North Koreans to give up the bomb, they will,' " he said. "Now the conclusion of most people, including in the Obama administration, is that they can't see the North Koreans giving up their nuclear weapons on terms that would be acceptable to anyone."
Harden reported from Tokyo. Staff writer Glenn Kessler in Washington contributed to this report.