South Korea Charges North in Ship Sinking

Peter Crail

South Korea formally accused North Korea May 20 of torpedoing a patrol vessel in March, the latest step in the fallout from an incident that has increased tensions between the two countries and further worsened the near-term prospects for restarting multilateral talks on North Korea’s nuclear programs.

Those six-way talks, involving the two Koreas, China, Japan, Russia, and the United States, have taken place intermittently since 2003. The most recent round ended in April 2009. (See ACT, May 2009.)

Following the sinking, which killed 46 South Korean sailors, Seoul and Washington abandoned efforts to bring Pyongyang back to the talks while suspicions of North Korea’s role in the sinking were assessed. (See ACT, May 2010.) The South Korean accusation follows a nearly two-month-long multinational investigation into the March 26 sinking of the patrol ship Cheonan.

During a May 20 press briefing, the team of investigators from Australia, South Korea, Sweden, the United Kingdom, and the United States pointed in particular to torpedo parts recovered from the Yellow Sea that they said matched a type used by the North Korean military. The team issued a report on the incident the same day that said “the evidence points overwhelmingly to the conclusion that the torpedo was fired by a North Korean submarine.”

South Korean Foreign Minister Yu Myung-hwan told reporters April 19 that the six-party talks “would not be possible for some time” if clear evidence emerged that North Korea was responsible for the sinking.

Similarly, Japan’s chief cabinet secretary, Hirofumi Hirano, told reporters May 20, “It would be difficult to have the six-party talks if the situation stays as it is now.”

North Korea has denied the charge, claiming in a May 20 statement carried by its state media that it would react to any punishment “with various forms of tough measures.”

The White House issued a statement May 20 declaring the attack to constitute “a challenge to international peace and security” and “a violation of the [1953] Armistice Agreement.” That agreement imposed an end to hostilities during the Korean War, but there is no peace treaty officially ending the conflict.

The investigation’s impact on the potential resumption of nuclear disarmament talks appears to have overshadowed suggestions that Pyongyang might be willing to return to them. China’s official Xinhua news agency said May 7 that North Korean leader Kim Jong Il told Chinese President Hu Jintao during a May 3-7 visit that Pyongyang “will work with China to create favorable conditions for restarting the six-party talks.” It was Kim’s first foreign visit in four years. North Korea has insisted that progress on replacing the Armistice Agreement with a peace process is necessary before it returns to multilateral talks, while the United States and its allies maintain that Pyongyang’s nuclear disarmament must come first.