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S. Korea unlikely to react militarily to ship sinking: expert

All Headlines 04:30 April 28, 2010

By Hwang Doo-hyong

WASHINGTON, April 27 (Yonhap) -- South Korea will not likely take military action even if it confirms North Korea's involvement in the sinking of a South Korean warship on the disputed sea border last month, a scholar said Tuesday.

"It appears the public is angry, but not angry enough to advocate military strikes against North Korea that could escalate into an unpredictable all-out conflict," Bruce Klingner, senior research fellow at The Heritage Foundation, wrote on the foundation's Web site. "At this point, it appears unlikely for Seoul to contemplate a military attack. There is repeated precedent for both South Korea and the US not responding militarily to previous North Korean attacks, even when they resulted in loss of life."

South Korean Defense Minister Kim Tae-young Saturday said that a torpedo attack is the most likely cause of the sinking of the 1,200-ton Cheonan in the Yellow Sea near the Northern Limit Line, the de facto maritime border and the scene of three bloody battles between the navies of the two Koreas since 1999.

Kim did not blame North Korea, as the Seoul government has not yet officially determined the exact cause.

Pyongyang has denied any involvement, denouncing the Lee Myung-bak government for finger-pointing with the aim of rallying conservative support in the June provincial government elections.

Many South Korean officials and analysts, however, believe North Korea is behind the incident, which left 40 sailors dead and six others missing.

"It is becoming increasingly obvious that a North Korean torpedo caused the March 26th sinking of a South Korean naval ship," Klingner said. "The Cheonan, a 1200 ton corvette, was severed cleanly in half, a characteristic of torpedo attack rather than a naval mine."

The scholar compared South Korea's reticence to "a CSI investigator who, upon seeing a dead body with a bullet hole in the forehead, refuses to rule out a heart attack as the cause of death since the only suspect in the room with a pistol is a vicious gangland boss."

North Korea is armed heavily with nuclear as well as conventional weapons, most deployed within striking range of Seoul and its satellite cities, home to nearly half of the country's 49 million people.

Experience has taught South Korea that Pyongyang will not readily admit its involvement in any terrorist act. In 1987, despite clear evidence, North Korea denied a role in the downing of a South Korean airliner over Myanmar.

The only viable option left for South Korea appears to be going to the U.N. Security Council for further sanctions.

"Strong suspicion but a lack of irrefutable evidence will constrain Seoul's policy options," Klingner said. "South Korea will contemplate both unilateral actions, including punitive economic and diplomatic measures, as well as taking the issue to the UN Security Council for multilateral response."

South Korean Foreign Minister Yu Myung-hwan has said he will consider bringing the case to the Security Council if North Korea is proved to be at fault, a position the U.S. supports.

Klingner, however, said he expects South Korea "would face stiff opposition from China and Russia, which have obstructed previous attempts to punish Pyongyang for violating UN resolutions."

China, with veto power on the Security Council, has often resisted efforts by the U.S. and its allies to adopt U.N. resolutions to rebuke North Korea, Beijing's closest communist ally.

"The Obama administration should consult closely with the South Koreans and support whatever action they are comfortable taking," he said. "This should include pressing the Chinese and Russians to relent in favor of tougher international sanctions, and taking unilateral punitive action that complements the South Korean approach."

hdh@yna.co.kr
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