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(LEAD) Seoul says it is difficult to pinpoint mastermind of North's 2010 naval attack

All Headlines 12:09 February 23, 2018

(ATTN: UPDATES with more background, info, photo throughout)

SEOUL, Feb. 23 (Yonhap) -- The South Korean government said Friday that it is difficult to pinpoint who led North Korea's deadly sinking of the warship Cheonan in 2010, amid controversy surrounding a planned visit by a senior Pyongyang official widely suspected of masterminding the attack.

Kim Yong-chol, a top North Korean official, will come to the South for a three-day visit on Sunday as the head of the North's high-level delegation to PyeongChang Winter Olympics closing ceremony later in the day. Conservatives and families of the 46 victims are strongly opposing his visit.

"It is clear that North Korea was blamed for the warship sinking and Kim was leading North Korea's reconnaissance bureau at that time," Baik Tae-hyun, spokesman at Seoul's unification ministry, told a press briefing.

"But it is also the fact that there is a limitation in pinpointing who was responsible for the incident."

This file photo, provided by AFP, shows Kim Yong-chol (C), a former chief of North Korea's reconnaissance bureau, crossing the inter-Korean border for talks in December 2007. (Yonhap)

The 72-year-old Kim is currently leading the ruling Workers' Party of Korea's United Front Department, a unit in charge of affairs with the South.

Gen. Kim, a known hard-liner, is, however, suspected of having orchestrated Pyongyang's provocations targeting the South when he previously served as chief of North Korea's reconnaissance bureau, which is tasked with intelligence operations in foreign countries and cyberwarfare.

The attacks included the 2010 shelling of Yeonpyeong Island near the de facto western maritime border and the planting of land mines across the inter-Korean border that severely injured two South Korean staff sergeants in August 2015.

The spokesman said that the government is well aware of concerns about the government's acceptance of the Kim-led delegation but called for public understanding of Seoul's decision, which is aimed at improving inter-Korean ties.

"But because the North said the group's trip is to attend the Olympics' closing ceremony and the government believes that its visit will help improve inter-Korean ties and pave way for dialogue for peace, Seoul has decided to accept Kim's trip," Baik said.

In the face of deteriorating public sentiment, the ministry has tried to calm the row surrounding Kim's trip, stressing that Kim is currently the figure who oversees inter-Korean affairs and has a say over the issue of the North's nuclear program.

"The government seeks to focus on who could lead practical dialogue to improve inter-Korean relations and bring peace to the Korean Peninsula, rather than to concentrate on who did what in the past," it said in a statement.

Asked whether the government will challenge Kim over the sinking of the Cheonan during his visit, the ministry merely said that it will "comprehensively" discuss an enhancement of inter-Korean ties and ways to bring peace to the region.

This photo, taken Feb. 23, 2018, shows lawmakers from the main opposition Liberty Korea Party holding a rally in front of Cheong Wa Dae to protest a planned visit to the South by Kim Yong-chol, a top North Korean official accused of masterminding the deadly 2010 sinking of a South Korean warship. (Yonhap)

sooyeon@yna.co.kr
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