x Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 26 July 2017

Seoul set to formally blame North for sinking naval ship

South Korea is scheduled to announce on Thursday the results of its investigation into the sinking of a navy corvette that broke in two on March 26, killing 46 sailors.

A woman mourns as the bodies of sailors from the Cheonan are returned to South Korea in late March.
A woman mourns as the bodies of sailors from the Cheonan are returned to South Korea in late March.

BEIJING // South Korea is scheduled to announce on Thursday the results of its investigation into the sinking of a navy corvette that broke in two on March 26, killing 46 South Korean sailors. It is widely expected that the announcement will officially hold North Korea responsible for the incident. Analysts said the response from China, the North's de facto guardian, to the announcement, will be crucial to Seoul's effort to eventually take the matter to the UN Security Council, but Beijing is likely to show a muted response.

The South's move will also probably incur an angry reaction from Pyongyang, which denied involvement, claiming the accusation was a "fabrication" by South Korea. "North Korea won't just sit back and watch," said a former ranking South Korean cabinet member directly involved in North Korean affairs. He spoke on condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the issue. Over the weekend, two North Korean patrol boats crossed into the South Korean side of the disputed sea borders twice. They retracted only after the South Korean navy fired warning shots, South Korea's official Yonhap news agency said, citing the Joint Chiefs of Staff.

The North's move, which in the past has led to bloody clashes between the countries, was seen as unusually "bold" this time especially as tensions remain high after the sinking of the South's 88-metre-long warship, Cheonan. The conservative South Korean newspaper Chosun Ilbo said yesterday that the South's investigation team, which included 15 Americans as well as investigators from Britain, Sweden and Australia, "reached a conclusion that it had no other choice but to determine the incident was done by North Korea".

The investigators said traces of explosives and aluminium debris found in the funnel and split section of the Cheonan are probably the same type used by former Soviet bloc countries and North Korea in manufacturing torpedoes, the newspaper said. But, it said, Seoul had no direct evidence that it was a North Korean torpedo. Observers are keen to see whether the announcement will contain any indisputable evidence that has yet to be made public.

"If there was any clear evidence, they would have already announced it," the former South Korean official said. Hajime Izumi, a professor of international relations at Japan's University of Shizuoka, said: "Technically speaking, it's very hard to get so-called finger prints of North Korean involvement in this kind of task." China has said it wants "scientific and objective evidence" that irrefutably points at North Korea as the culprit for the deadly incident.

"China will not accept nor deny South Korea's announcement," said Shi Yinhong, a North Korea expert at Renmin University in Beijing. Soon after the announcement, South Korea will send a letter to the presidency of the Security Council, a move seen as the first step to appeal to the world body to punish North Korea. Although the move is a natural diplomatic step for South Korea, analysts were sceptical about its effectiveness, citing China and Russia, two allies to North Korea which are permanent council members and can exercise veto power over any punitive measures.

"Even a [UN Security Council] president's statement is highly unlikely," Mr Izumi said. Yoo Ho-yeol, a professor of foreign policy at Korea University in Seoul, said the South Korean government should not rush to bring the matter to the UN. "South Korea should take time to first persuade China, as well as Russia," he said. "Otherwise, things will get twisted from here." Observers said China's response would be a bellwether to how the matter will proceed from here.

Mr Shi in Beijing said China's response will be prudent and minimal. "Kim Jong-il smiled to China. He just visited China. He also invited president Hu Jintao to visit North Korea. In this circumstance, China will not do very much to embarrass or annoy him." In South Korea, North Korean affairs have always had huge domestic implications. Political camps have been long divided between those who call for tougher measures against Pyongyang to "teach it a lesson" and those, on the other hand, who argue for engagement and reconciliation to bring about positive changes in a so-called "sunshine strategy".

With the anti-North sentiment running high because the sinking of the Cheonan, some are concerned that the tragedy can be used in the upcoming June local elections. In an editorial yesterday, South Korea's major broadcaster, MBC, said: "The Cheonan tragedy has already become an unavoidable issue at the elections." The opposition camp claims that the ruling party is trying to woo voters by beating an anti-North drum.

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