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South Korea restraint after ship sinking adds to clamor for government action

No one knows what sank a South Korean naval patrol boat in the middle of the night last month, but that hasn’t prevented a growing public clamor demanding that President Lee Myung-bak challenge the North Korean regime over the disaster.

The 1,200-ton Cheonan went down March 26 near the disputed sea border with North Korea, split in half by a mysterious blast. Of the 46 missing crewmen, the bodies of only two have been recovered.

With speculation rampant that a North Korean torpedo sank the Cheonan, critics say the lack of response makes the government appear weak in the face of obvious hostilities by the North.

In recent days, newspaper articles and op-ed pieces have steadily increased pressure on Lee’s administration to demand answers from the government of Kim Jong Il.

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Adding to public suspicion that overcautious officials are trying to hide something, the South Korean government has sent conflicting messages on the sinking.

Lee has asked for the public’s patience, warning against “premature conclusions” as the military prepares for salvage efforts to raise the wreckage from the sea floor. But Defense Minister Kim Tae-young has said he believes a torpedo could have hit the ship and speculated that “North Korea may have intentionally floated underwater mines to inflict harm on us.”

Some observers say officials have avoided pointing a finger at the North for good reason: To do so would call for a decisive military response that the South is not prepared to carry out.

Analysts say South Korea risks provoking a war that would devastate its economy, scare off foreign investors and place Seoul, the capital, under threat from North Korea’s arsenal of short-range missiles.

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“The South Korean government knows exactly what it can do about this situation, and that is nothing. It cannot start a war,” said Andrei Lankov, a history professor at Kookmin University in Seoul.

Others say a rash act by Seoul would mirror the 2003 U.S.-led invasion of Iraq, which was preceded by faulty assumptions that President Saddam Hussein possessed weapons of mass destruction.

Conjecture on the Internet and elsewhere has pointed to the possibility of a boiler explosion aboard the Cheonan or that the ship might have struck a mine left over from the 1950-53 Korean War.

And what if evidence does point to a North Korean torpedo attack?

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“What would they get by attacking North Korean military installations?” Lankov said. “The satisfaction would be short-lived because the voters calling for revenge would soon blame the government over any fallout for its actions.”

john.glionna@latimes.com

Ju-min Park of The Times’ Seoul Bureau contributed to this report.


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