(ATTN: UPDATES with press secretary's briefing in paras 9-14; RECASTS lead; RESTRUCTURES)
By Lee Chi-dong
SEOUL, April 19 (Yonhap) -- President Lee Myung-bak pledged Monday to take "resolute" measures against those responsible for the sinking of a South Korean naval ship last month as he consoled the nation over one the country's worst naval disasters.
"As the president, I will ascertain the cause of the Cheonan's sinking to the last detail," he said in his address broadcast live. "I will deal resolutely with the results and make sure such an incident does not recur."
The Cheonan, a 1,200-ton corvette, sank in the Yellow Sea on the night of March 26 while on a routine patrol mission after a mysterious explosion that tore it into two, according to the Navy. Last week, the Navy salvaged the stern of the ship where the bodies of thirty-eight young sailors were found. Eight crew members are still missing, and efforts to hoist the ship's stem were being delayed by bad weather and strong currents.
Military investigators said the sinking seems to have been caused by an external blast. While not ruling out North Korea's involvement, they said they are looking into other possibilities, including a floating sea mine. Foreign specialists have also joined the investigation.
South and North Korea had clashed three times in the past near their maritime border, the Northern Limit Line, close to where the Cheonan went down. The South's 680,000-strong military confronts a North Korean military of some 1.1 million troops along the demarcation line that was drawn after the 1950-53 Korean War, which ended in a ceasefire and not a peace treaty.
North Korea's military on Saturday denied any involvement, accusing the South of spreading false rumors for political purposes and to pressure Pyongyang. South Korean Foreign Minister Yu Myung-hwan said in a television talk show Sunday that his government may take the case to the U.N. Security Council if the North is found to be responsible.
In the emotionally-charged address, Lee read aloud the name of each dead sailor. The eight-minute speech was in lieu of his biweekly pre-recorded radio address.
"If (the two Koreas) are reunited and genuine peace and prosperity comes to this land, the people will remember your sacrifice again," Lee said. "Your fatherland, which you loved, will not forget you, ever."
Lee's aides said once the cause is found, the president will again speak on the matter, possibly in the form of a "special address to the people."
"President Lee wanted to deliver his condolence message in person," Lee Dong-kwan, senior secretary for public affairs at the presidential office, Cheong Wa Dae, told reporters, in explaining the background to Monday's speech. "It is the expression of his resolve on national security as the commander-in-chief of the military."
The president also promised changes to the military.
"I will make our military stronger," he said.
"A strong military is made not only by powerful weapons but also by strong spirit. What we need now is strong spirit above all," he added. "We need to reflect on ourselves now. We have to find out and fully address what it is that we lack, what the problem is."
The secretary said the president's comments reflect his commitment to reforming the military amid public criticisms about how it handled the ship sinking in the early stages and a series of accidents involving the Navy's anti-submarine Lynx helicopters last week.
At the same time, the president appealed to the public for joint efforts to overcome the current ordeal.
He has invited ruling and opposition party leaders for talks this week, the first such meeting since April last year when North Korea fired a long-range rocket.
Chung Mong-joon, head of the ruling Grand National Party, Chung Se-kyun of the main opposition Democratic Party, and Lee Hoi-chang of the minority opposition Liberty Forward Party are expected to attend the meeting scheduled for Tuesday.
The president will call for bipartisan cooperation in handling the aftermath of the sinking and also emphasize that political circles should not attempt to exploit the incident ahead of the June 2 local elections, according to Cheong Wa Dae.
Lee also plans to meet his predecessors, Chun Doo-hwan and Roh Tae-woo, religious leaders, and military veterans later this week to listen to their opinions on how to cope with the aftermath of the sinking.
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