South Korea says probe points to North in sinking of ship; Pyongyang denies involvement

By Blaine Harden
Washington Post Foreign Service
Thursday, May 20, 2010; 8:40 AM

SEOUL -- South Korea said Thursday that an international investigation has found overwhelming evidence that one of its warships was sunk by a torpedo made in North Korea and that the weapon was fired by a North Korean submarine.

"There is no other plausible explanation" for the sinking of the Cheonan on March 26 near a disputed sea border between the two Koreas, said the report. It was based on the findings of 50 experts from South Korea who worked with 24 investigators from the United States, Australia, Britain and Sweden.

After the results of the investigation were released, South Korean President Lee Myung-bak said his country "will take resolute countermeasures against North Korea and make it admit its wrongdoing through strong international cooperation."

Lee made the statement in a phone conversation with Australian Prime Minister Kevin Rudd but did not specify what countermeasures the South would take against the heavily armed and unpredictable government of leader Kim Jong Il.

Most analysts say the only realistic options available to South Korea are pushing for increased international isolation of the North and cutting back on inter-Korean trade, which has already seen a dramatic decline in the two years since Lee has been in power.

North Korea immediately denounced the investigation as a "sheer fabrication" and accused the South of "pointing a dirty finger at us like a thief." It added that if there is any retaliation or punishment of the North, it will respond with "various forms of tough measures including all-out war."

The North also said it wanted to send its own investigators to South Korea to examine evidence -- a prospect that South Korean officials said was possible under the armistice that ended the Korean War in 1953.

The international investigation, details of which have been dribbling out this week, is certain to lead to a sustained effort by South Korea, the United States and Japan to seek punitive action against North Korea by the U.N. Security Council. "This act of aggression is one more instance of North Korea's unacceptable behavior and defiance of international law," the White House said late Wednesday.

The report said that investigators had confirmed that "a few small submarines and a mother ship" had left a North Korean naval base two to three days before the attack on the Cheonan and returned to port two to three days later.

It also found that torpedo parts recovered at the explosion site "perfectly match" schematics of a North Korean-made torpedo that the Pyongyang government has offered to sell to foreign countries.

The exploded torpedo was fired by a midget submarine, equipped with night-vision technology, that approached the Cheonan from international waters to ensure "the covertness" of the attack, South Korean Rear Adm. Hwang Won-dong said Thursday. Speaking at a news conference held to elaborate on the findings, he said the midget submarine fled the scene following the same route.

Investigators collected parts that were marked with Korean writing, the report said, and the markings were "consistent with the marking of a previously obtained North Korean torpedo," which allowed the investigators to "confirm that the recovered parts were made in North Korea."

Parts from the recovered torpedo were shown in a nationally televised presentation, as South Korean Army Brig. Gen. Yoon Jong-seong explained how the parts exactly match blueprints of a North Korean-made torpedo. The torpedo's propeller assembly was discovered May 15 in a dredging operation that took place near the site where the Cheonan sank.

South Korea and American experts said at the news conference that the findings of the investigation were unanimous.

In Washington, Deputy Secretary of State James B. Steinberg said Wednesday that the United States and South Korea have "worked very closely" on the investigation. He called the investigation a "very professional, very methodical effort to understand what happened . . . to follow the facts where they lead."

South Korea is seeking to use the investigation to garner broad international support for U.N. sanctions against North Korea and to persuade China to support them. U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon called the report's findings "deeply troubling," his spokesperson said late Wednesday.

China, which is North Korea's primary patron and largest trade partner, has been skeptical. Chinese Vice Foreign Minister Cui Tiankai refused to comment on the report but called the sinking of the ship "unfortunate," news agencies reported. Last weekend, Chinese Foreign Minister Yang Jiechi told the foreign ministers of South Korea and Japan that any conclusions about the sinking must be based on scientific and objective evidence.

On Wednesday, South Korean Foreign Minister Yu Myung-hwan told European diplomats and business leaders in Seoul that efforts to punish North Korea "will not have much effect without the concerted efforts of the international community."

Still, there is considerable doubt even in the South Korean Foreign Ministry about how far Seoul will be able to go with its allegations against the North, given China's veto in the U.N. Security Council.

There is a rising tide of irritation in South Korea at China, which waited nearly a month to voice sympathy for those killed in the sinking.

"The level of South Korean anger against China is the highest I have ever seen," said Brad Glosserman, executive director for the Honolulu-based Pacific Forum of the Center for Strategic and International Studies.

He described the sinking of the warship as a "major formative experience" for a new generation of South Koreans as they deal with the unpredictable military threat posed by North Korea.

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