By Kurt Achin of VOA News | Pyeongtaek, South Korea – South Korean officials are less than 24 hours away from formally announcing the results of a multinational investigation into the sinking of a South Korean warship. Many in South Korea see it as a near certainty that Seoul will explicitly blame North Korea for the deadly attack.
South Korean media quoted Foreign Minister Yu Myung-hwan Wednesday as saying it is “obvious” North Korea was involved in the sinking of the South Korean warship, the Cheonan.
The vessel was patrolling disputed waters west of the Korean peninsula in March when an explosion ripped through it and sank it, killing 46 sailors aboard. Minister Yu was quoted as saying weeks of investigation by experts from South Korea, the United States, and other countries have brought the circumstances of the sinking “to clear light.”
South Korean officials gave reporters their first look at the reconstructed warship Wednesday at a naval base in Pyeongtaek. The ship is in dry dock with a massive gaping hole and dangling wires in its middle.
Rear Admiral Park Jung-soo pointed to evidence backing the view that an external explosion tore through the ship.
He says you can see there is no evidence of fire damage to wires, making the idea of an internal explosion irrational. Likewise, he points to the undamaged bow and says the lack of scrapes makes the suggestion that the boat hit a natural barrier “ridiculous.”
North and South Korea remain technically at war, and have fought three previous naval skirmishes since 1999 in the area the Cheonan was patrolling. North Korea has refused for decades to accept a United Nations-mandated maritime border there. Speculation has been building for weeks here the investigation will show a torpedo attack to be the cause of the Cheonan sinking.
If Seoul does formally accuse the North, its options for a response are limited. A military response is all but certainly ruled out, as it could escalate very rapidly into a full-scale war– triggering a possible North Korean artillery and rocket attack that could kill hundreds of thousands in a matter of hours.
Instead, South Korean officials say they will take steps to isolate North Korea economically and diplomatically, beginning with an appeal to the United Nations Security Council.
Baek Seung-joo, with the Korean Institute for Defense Analyses in Seoul, says even compelling investigation results may only be effective to a certain degree.
He says the evidence will probably convince South Koreans on a local level. On an international level, however, the bar will be set much higher. He says China, a longtime supporter of North Korea, may ask for much more detailed proof than other nations.
U.S. President Barack Obama assured South Korean President Lee Myung-bak on the phone this week that Washington supports South Korea on the Cheonan investigation results, and U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton is due to visit Seoul next week for a show of solidarity with the South.