Solemn Korea lays Cheonan victims to rest

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Solemn Korea lays Cheonan victims to rest


President Lee Myung-bak, center, performs a military salute yesterday at a joint Navy funeral service for the fallen sailors of the Navy ship Cheonan at the Second Fleet Command in Pyeongtaek, Gyeonggi. [Joint Press Corps]

In a solemn and emotional military funeral, South Korea said farewell to the 46 sailors who went down with the naval warship Cheonan last month, as the leader of the country’s Navy pledged to take revenge on the tragedy’s perpetrator.

President Lee Myung-bak joined an estimated 2,800 mourners at the funeral service at the Second Fleet Command in Pyeongtaek, Gyeonggi. At 10 a.m., sirens went off across the nation to indicate the start of the send-off ceremony.

A somber President Lee placed before each portrait the Hwarang Order of Military Merit, the fourth-highest distinction to service members, and laid white chrysanthemums at the altar.

In a eulogy that followed, Adm. Kim Sung-chan, the Navy chief of staff, hailed the heroic endeavors of the Cheonan soldiers and vowed to take revenge on whomever attacked the ship.

“What happened on March 26 at Baengnyeong Island [near which the ship sank] should not have happened,” Kim read, his voice trembling.

The nation’s military leaders plus Gen. Walter Sharp, commander of the U.S. Combined Forces Command, were in attendance.

“We cannot and must not forgive this or forget this. Whoever caused our people great pains, we will not sit idly by. We will pursue [the responsible party] to the end and make it pay a huge price.

“We will not let anyone hurt our beautiful country and precious seas,” Kim also said. “We will never forgive whoever even dares to touch our waters.”


Surviving sailors of the sunken Cheonan, holding portraits and ashes of their fallen colleagues, march in a funeral procession heading for the Daejeon National Cemetery from the Second Fleet Command. [NEWSIS]

North Korea is a prime suspect, but South Korea has not officially blamed the communist regime, and the North has denied involvement. Seoul officials have cautioned against reaching a hasty conclusion until their investigation is finished.

When the 1,200-ton corvette sank, 58 of 104 aboard were rescued, but 40 bodies were found inside the ship, while six others are still missing.

Chief Petty Officer Kim Hyun-rae, one of the surviving soldiers, said in a tearful tribute at the funeral that the Cheonan’s crew will be remembered for their “noble sacrifice.”

“The Cheonan will forever be part of us all,” Kim said. “We will remember each and every one of you. And we swear before you that the sorrow that made us part will never happen again.”

The one-hour ceremony ended with 46 of the surviving soldiers, each carrying a portrait of a fallen comrade, leaving the base to the Navy Band’s renditions of “The Song of the Cheonan” and “Let’s Go to the Sea,” two favorite military songs of the Cheonan crew. About 3,000 black and white balloons - the colors of the Navy uniform - were released above the procession.

As the service was taking place in Pyeongtaek, active servicemen and local residents in Baengnyeong held their own ceremony at the island, floating white chrysanthemums on the waters of the Yellow Sea along with tribute messages.

After the funeral, the surviving families issued a statement to thank South Koreans for their love and support during their mourning.

“As we saw long queues of people at altars across the country, we realized we were not alone and we could conjure up new hopes,” the statement read. “We’d like to offer our deep gratitude for making sure the 46 warriors of the Cheonan won’t have a lonely departure.”

Following the service, the police escorted the funeral procession to Daejeon National Cemetery, south of Pyeongtaek. Residents lining the streets threw chrysanthemums.

More tears flowed in Daejeon, where surviving family members broke down before portraits of their loved ones. Almost 45,000 soldiers are buried at the cemetery, and the burial ceremony for the 46 Cheonan sailors was the largest since the cemetery opened in 1979.

In the four days before the funeral, more than half a million mourners paid their respects at altars across the nation. The altars remained open yesterday, the fifth and the final day of the national mourning period as designated by the government last Sunday.

The South’s military has been under fire for its inadequate response to the incident. The Board of Audit and Inspection said Monday that after the funeral, it would begin a probe into the military’s botched crisis management and reporting structure. The nation’s senior military commanders will sit down sometime next month to discuss their problems.

By Yoo Jee-ho []
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