South Korea president vows to pursue those responsible for naval disaster
In an emotional speech televised live to a grieving nation, South Korean President Lee Myung-bak on Monday vowed to pursue those responsible for last month’s deadly sinking of a naval warship.
Without mentioning North Korea, the conservative leader said he would “resolutely and unwaveringly cope with the results” of the investigation into one of South Korea’s worst naval disasters.
Pledging to make South Korea’s military stronger to prevent a similar episode, Lee broke into tears as he read the names of 46 crewmen who are presumed to have died when the Cheonan sank after a mysterious nighttime explosion.
The March 26 blast sank the 1,200-ton corvette as it patrolled near the contested sea border between North and South Korea. South officials have said they have not ruled out a possibility that the vessel may have been downed by a mine or torpedo.
The leader of the inquiry, which includes experts from the United States and other countries, has linked the cause of the sinking to an external blast, rather than exploding ammunition aboard ship.
North Korea on Saturday responded angrily to suggestions it was responsible for the disaster, accusing Seoul of spreading false rumors for political gain before upcoming elections.
On Sunday, however, South Korean officials suggested they would take the matter to the United Nations Security Council if the investigation found North Korean involvement.
South Korean Defense Minister Kim Tae-young on Monday turned up the heat on the government in Pyongyang, telling a parliamentary hearing that the South Korean military had “judged that it was a North Korean act as soon as the incident occurred.”
Wearing a black suit and tie, Lee for the first time addressed the nation on TV concerning the Cheonan’s sinking. Previously he had spoken about the sinking during his regular radio addresses, and he has flown to the scene to console family members of crewmen.
“I promise you that as the president I will uncover all details of the cause of the Cheonan’s sinking to the end,” he said in a 10-minute speech. Later in the address, he added, “I will make the military stronger.”
Fifty-eight crewmen, including the captain, were rescued as the ship sank. In the ensuing weeks, 38 bodies have been found, most of them last week when the vessel’s stern was raised from the water. Eight crew members remain unaccounted for.
One South Korean newspaper reported Monday that a senior U.S. intelligence official had visited Seoul this month to help determine whether North Korea had engaged in any suspicious activity around the time of the Cheonan’s sinking.
Researcher Ju-min Park of The Times’ Seoul Bureau contributed to this report.