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Twitter Send 2010/05/20 12:00 KST
(Cheonan attack) (News Focus) S. Korea condemns N. Korea for torpedoing chances of reconciliation

By Sam Kim
SEOUL, May 20 (Yonhap) -- In a bleak contrast with the heart-warming rendezvous between the leaders of the Koreas a decade ago, South Korea announced Thursday that a North Korean submarine had sneaked into its waters and torpedoed its warship -- awakening the nation to the bitter reality of the world's sole remaining Cold War frontier.

   The attack was carried out, investigators say, on the night of March 26 near a western border island that had already born witness to a brief but fierce gunfight between the two sides' navies last year.

A 1,200-ton corvette named after the midsize central city of Cheonan was torn in half while its 104 crew members went about their business -- some exercising and some tending to their routine duties -- taking 46 of them down with the ship into the murky sea.

   On Thursday, ending a weeks-long investigation that drew experts from around the world, the government said it had nailed the culprit after analyzing a collection of parts and fragments from a North Korean-made torpedo.

   "The evidence points overwhelmingly to the conclusion that the torpedo was fired by a North Korean submarine. There is no other plausible explanation," it said in a report, citing a multinational team of investigators.

   "This is a moment that inter-Korean relations have essentially ended," Paik Hak-soon, a North Korea expert at the Sejong Institute, said. "They will remain that way unless a fundamental political change takes place in either Seoul or Pyongyang."

   Paik forecast Pyongyang will move to unite its people, exploiting heightened tensions to consolidate its grip on power and empowering military hard-liners to deal with eroded relations.

   The Cheonan sinking has already vindicated South Korea's reluctance to allow exchanges with the communist neighbor. Since last week, South Korea has stopped funding any government-level projects with North Korea and urged hundreds of companies doing business with the communist neighbor not to pursue new ventures.

   Yang Moo-jin, a professor at the University of North Korean studies, said it is likely that South Korea will move to restrict North Korean ships from entering its waters.

   "That will prompt the North to refuse to guarantee the safety of South Korean airplanes flying over its eastern waters" as it did last year amid fraying inter-Korean ties, Yang said.

   The analysts said the greatest victim in the saga following the Cheonan sinking will be the more than 110 South Korean manufacturing firms in the North Korean border town of Kaesong.

   The complex, which hires 42,000 North Korean workers, is the last remaining reconciliation symbol after Pyongyang ditched Seoul as its partner last month for cross-border tours to Mount Kumgang.

   Casting a cloud over the fate of the complex, North Korea expelled a South Korean worker last week over a training booklet that had apparently slipped into his possession by accident.

   "When things go wrong, everything that would have passed as fine goes wrong," Yang said. "It's unlikely the Kaesong industrial complex will survive the crumbling political ties in the long run."

   Yang predicted South Korea will toughen its restrictions on the transportation of resources into the North. On Thursday, a South Korean importer of stone from North Korea told Yonhap News Agency that the Unification Ministry refused to approve his visit to the communist country.

   The ministry, which had led exchanges with North Korea after South Korean President Kim Dae-jung met with the North Korean leader Kim Jong-il in Pyongyang for the first-ever inter-Korean summit, has issued a safety warning for its citizens in the North.

   This prompted South Korean shipping companies to suspend their sand imports from North Korea, a six-year-old project that was seen as mitigating tension in the western waters.

   Economic cooperation boomed following the meeting between the two Kims in 2000. It appeared to get a boost when Kim Dae-jung's liberal successor, Roh Moo-hyun, met with Kim Jong-il for another summit in October 2007.

   Less than half a year later, the ties turned sour when conservative President Lee Myung-bak took power in Seoul and urged North Korea to show progress in denuclearization before it receives large-scale aid and cooperation from south of its border.

   North Korea called him a "traitor." Last November, a North Korean patrol boat crossed the Yellow Sea border and opened fire on a South Korean one, only to retreat in flames.

   The clearest act of defiance came in May last year when North Korea conducted its second nuclear test, raising tension both on the peninsula and in the international arena.

   "In the worst scenario possible, we can expect North Korea to conduct a third nuclear test if South Korea and the United States continue to pressure it over the Cheonan sinking," Yang said.

   South Korea and the U.S. have said that the tragedy will affect the six-nation talks, which are aimed at denuclearizing North Korea through diplomatic and economic concessions. South Korea says punishment for the sinking -- most likely through the U.N. Security Council -- takes precedent.

   North Korea has strenuously denied its role in the sinking. Its foremost benefactor, China, has also refrained from reaching a conclusion on what caused the South Korean warship to sink.

   The six-nation talks, which also include Japan and Russia, have been stalled since late 2008.

   "We are seeing another Cold War looming in the region," Yang said, adding Pyongyang may altogether renounce its intent to return to the talks if the Cheonan sinking prevents the talks from reopening.

   The Korean Peninsula is already dubbed the world's last remaining Cold War frontier, as the 1950-53 Korean War, seen often as a by-product of the rivalry between the Soviet Union and the United States, has yet to formally end with a peace treaty.