North Korea threatens South with war over 'fabricated' report

Row over who was to blame for torpedoing of Cheonan warship escalates as investigation into incident is released
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North Korea yesterday threatened to respond with "all-out war" if it is punished following the report of a multinational investigation that blamed a torpedo fired by one of its submarines for the sinking of a South Korean warship.

Pyongyang denounced the results of the inquiry as a fabrication, and denied that it was involved in the sinking of the Cheonan warship in the Yellow Sea. Forty-six sailors died in the incident, which was the worst military disaster for South Korea since the Korean War.

A spokesman for the North's Defence Commission said they would respond to any attempt to punish it by "all-out war... involving the whole nation, all the people and the whole state".

The outcome of the investigation into the sinking on 26 March opens the way for North Korea to be referred to the UN Security Council and for the US to add it to its list of state sponsors of terror.

The White House said the sinking was an unacceptable "act of aggression" against international law and the truce which ended the Korean War in 1953. But China is unlikely to support sanctions in the Security Council since it has a vested interest in maintaining the regime of Kim Jong-il.

The South Korean President Lee Myung-bak earlier threatened "stern action" against the North following the release of the report that described how pieces of a North Korean torpedo, including fragments of its propulsion unit, had been found. The investigators added that several small North Korean submarines had left their base several days before the attack and returned soon afterwards.

Retaliation against North Korea by the South or the international community is unlikely because the country is already the target of severe sanctions. Nevertheless, Mr Lee said: "We will take resolute counter-measures against North Korea and make it admit its wrongdoings through strong international cooperation."

Mr Lee's government cut back on aid to the North on the grounds that it produced no political dividends, but his tougher line has proved equally ineffective. China, North Korea's main ally, gave a low-key response to the report, saying the attack on the ship was "unfortunate" and emphasising the need to maintain peace on the Korean peninsula.

The US is also likely to seek to prevent the Cheonan incident escalating into a crisis. While China may want to rein in North Korea because it does not want its relations with South Korea to suffer, the sinking of the warship underlines its inability to control Kim Jong-il's regime.

A report by the Joint Civilian-Military Investigation Group, which includes experts from the US, Australia, Britain and Sweden, describes how an explosion split the ship in two. Technical evidence appeared to rule out an earlier suspicion that the ship had been sunk by a mine, possibly left over from the Korean War.

"As for conclusive evidence that can corroborate the use of a torpedo, we have collected propulsion parts, including propulsion motor with propellers, and a steering section from the site of the sinking," the investigators said.

These fragments are identical in size and shape to North Korean torpedoes, as illustrated in literature produced as an aid for possible foreign purchasers. Markings in Korean were also found on the propulsion unit.

After ruling out mines, collision, internal explosion, grounding and fatigue failure as reasons for the loss of the ship, the report concludes that only an underwater torpedo could have produced a powerful explosion of the type that sank it. The injuries to the dead sailors were consistent with the explosion of a torpedo.

Additional evidence for this is provided by information that "a few small submarines and a mother ship supporting them left a North Korean naval base in the West Sea two to three days prior to the attack, and returned to port two to three days after the attack".

The report concludes that there is no other plausible explanation for the loss of the ship other than a torpedo launched by a submarine. North Korea's motives for the attack are still unclear. Its tactics in the past have been to make bellicose threats against anybody taking action against it.

At the same time, the North's threat of military retaliation will be taken more seriously after the sinking of the warship and a general sense that the actions of Pyongyang are not entirely predictable. The North was already seething about the tightening of international sanctions after it carried out nuclear and missile tests.

The angry but ineffective international response to what appears to be a flagrant act of aggression by North Korea underlines how the possession of even the most primitive nuclear weapon makes a small power invulnerable to military action.

The North does not even have to threaten to use nuclear weapons, since the South Korean capital Seoul is well within artillery range of its army.

What happens next?

Will South Korea take military action against the North?

Not likely since it does not want to start a war with a nuclear power. But it may be quicker to react to any perceived act of aggression along the maritime or land border to show that its restraint cannot be taken for granted. This means there may be some firing along the demilitarised zone which has divided the two countries since 1953. The South has a lot to lose economically from any serious military action which would give the impression that all-out war is a possibility, however remote.

Will North Korea take military action against the South?

The North has been making apocalyptic threats for so many years that the South and the rest of the world largely discounts them. But the North's possession of a nuclear device in the making, the extreme aggressiveness of its rhetoric, and now the sinking a South Korean warship means that nobody is absolutely sure that it will not undertake more serious military action than anybody expects. It could underline this by test firing longer-range missiles.

So will there just be sabre-rattling?

With one million troops along the border there are plenty of sabres to rattle. The South could police its maritime border more tightly, looking for a chance for retaliation for the loss of its corvette. There will be more joint exercises with US forces. For its part the North has long experience of upping the ante without going to war and making use of its fissile material to conduct nuclear tests with uncertain results which draw attention to its demands. Experts say it is a long way from having a useable bomb but nobody wants to find out the hard way if they are right.

Will there be more UN sanctions?

This is the most probable outcome. But this does not mean much unless it is supported by China and this support will probably not be forthcoming. The South has largely cut back on the aid it was giving the North and cross-border economic co-operation.