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South Korean Investigators Blame North Korea for Ship Attack

May 20, 2010 at 12:00 AM EST
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JIM LEHRER: And finally tonight: South Korea accuses the North of sinking their naval ship two months ago.

Judy Woodruff has our story.

JUDY WOODRUFF: It was the deadliest attack on South Korea’s military since the Korean War. An explosion sank the naval vessel Cheonan in March, killing 46 South Korean sailors near the disputed maritime border with North Korea.

Today, in Seoul, an international team of investigators said North Korea was the culprit.

YOON DUK-YONG, chief investigator (through translator): We have reached the clear conclusion that the Republic of Korea’s Cheonan was sunk as a result of an external underwater explosion caused by a torpedo made in North Korea. The evidence points overwhelmingly to the conclusion that the torpedo was fired by a North Korean submarine. There is no other plausible explanation.

JUDY WOODRUFF: The investigators, including experts from the U.S., said a serial number linked the recovered torpedo to North Korea. But a spokesman for the North’s military said the evidence was fabricated.

COL. PAK IN HO, North Korean Naval Spokesman (through translator): Our Korean People’s Army wasn’t founded for the purpose of attacking others. We have no intention to strike others first. If the enemies try to deal any retaliation or punishment or if they try sanctions or a strike on us, we will answer to this with all-out war.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Despite those threats, South Korea’s president called for an emergency security meeting for Friday. A spokesman promised quick action.

PARK SUN-KYU, South Korean presidential spokesman (through translator): As the commander in chief of the South Korean military and government, President Lee Myung-Bak is resolutely determined. He will soon follow up with strong measures.

JUDY WOODRUFF: South Korea’s military options could be limited by the 1953 truce that ended the Korean war. It bars any unilateral military strike.

But the Seoul government could call for the United Nations to punish the North Koreans. The communist regime is already subject to stringent sanctions for its nuclear program. Ending that program has been a key U.S. priority through multinational talks. But the North’s foreign ministry said today any effort to restart the stalled talks will have to wait.

KIM YOUNG-SUN, South Korean Foreign Ministry Spokesman (through translator): We believe that we can look over whether the six-party talks can be held or not after we take proper measures about the serious security-related situation.

JUDY WOODRUFF: In Washington, a White House statement condemned the sinking of the South Korean ship as an act of aggression. Secretary of Defense Robert Gates wouldn’t say if he considered the sinking an act of war or what the response should be.

ROBERT GATES, U.S. secretary of defense: We certainly support the findings of the Korean investigation — the South Korean investigation. We obviously are in close consultation with the Koreans. The attack was against one of their ships. And — and we will — naturally, they would have the lead in determining the path forward.

JUDY WOODRUFF: In the meantime, U.S. forces along the border between the two Koreas made no move to go to higher alert.

And, on the diplomatic front, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton left for a previously scheduled trip to Japan, China, and South Korea.