An international probe into the sinking of the 1,200-ton corvette Cheonan confirmed suspicions that North Korean is responsible for the tragedy, which killed 46 sailors.
Investigators on Thursday presented fragments of a torpedo, which they said sank the vessel on the night of March 26 near the disputed West Sea maritime border between the two Koreas.
“The evidence points overwhelmingly to the conclusion that the torpedo was fired by a North Korean submarine,” said Yoon Duk-yong, co-chairman of the joint investigation team. “There is no other plausible explanation,” he added.
South Korea invited outside experts, including Americans, Brits and Australians, in a bid to present a finding that would be seen as objective.
Yoon identified the weapon as a North Korean CHT-025 torpedo.
“We confirmed that a few small submarines and a mother ship supporting them left a North Korean naval base in the West Sea two, three days prior to the attack and returned to port two, three days after the attack,” he said.
The U.S. and Japanese governments quickly voiced support for South Korea, with the White House in a statement condemning the North Korean “act of aggression” and Japanese Prime Minister Yukio Hatoyama calling it “unforgivable.”
South Korean President Lee Myung-bak pledged “stern measures” in response to the ship’s sinking, although South Korean analysts say Seoul’s options are likely limited to trying to secure a condemnatory statement at the U.N. Security Council.
Reaction from North Korea came swiftly Thursday, in the form of a statement by a spokesman for the ruling National Defense Commission (NDC) headed by Kim Jong-il. It was posted on the official KCNA news agency Web site.
Accusing the South Korean government – the “group of traitors” – of orchestrating a “conspiratorial farce” and a “charade” in order to achieve “certain political and military aims” the spokesman declared that any retaliation from the South would be met by “more powerful retaliation” including war.
The spokesman also warned that from now on, “any small incident” on land, sea or in the air where the North exercises sovereignty would be regarded as provocation and responded to with a “merciless, strong physical blow.”
The area of the West Sea where the Cheonan broke in two and sank has been the scene of problems in the past. An exchange of fire between a North Korean patrol boat and a South Korean ship there last November killed at least one North Korean sailor. When the Cheonan sank, some in the South speculated that North Korea had attacked it in retaliation for the earlier incident.
The dispute over the ship’s destruction takes relations between the two Koreas to their lowest ebb in years. It comes just weeks before the 10th anniversary of the historic first-ever North-South summit in Pyongyang raised hopes of rapprochement between the democratic South and Stalinist North.
The meeting with Kim Jong-il as part of his “sunshine” policy of engagement won liberal South Korean President Kim Dae-jung the Nobel peace prize.
Warming ties saw South Korean aid packages and the development of an inter-Korean industrial project located north of the de-militarized zone, aimed at symbolizing reconciliation and employing more than 40,000 North Koreans at more than 100 South Korean-owned companies.
Despite the dispute that erupted in late 2002 over Pyongyang’s nuclear programs, Kim Dae-jung’s liberal successor, Roh Moo-hyun, pushed ahead with the sunshine policy, a stance that put Roh at odds with the Bush administration at times but won him a summit with Kim Jong-il, in October 2007.
President Lee Myung-bak, a conservative, took office early the following year, ending a decade of liberal rule and the sunshine policy with it.
He immediately drew Pyongyang’s wrath – and was assigned the label of “traitor” – by linking progress in inter-Korean relations with a resolution to the nuclear weapons standoff, then dragging into its sixth year.
Two years later, the “six-party” talks on the nuclear issue remained stalled and the dispute showed no sign of being resolved, even before the new tensions over the Cheonan sinking.