U.S. thinks North sunk Cheonan, sources say

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U.S. thinks North sunk Cheonan, sources say

WASHINGTON - The U.S. government has concluded that North Korea sank the South Korean warship Cheonan in March and has begun discussing possible measures to be taken in response, according to a source here.

Another diplomatic source said the Obama administration is also preparing a joint U.S.-South Korean statement condemning the North Korean action and strengthening the two countries’ military alliance. The statement, the source added, would be issued after the findings of the Cheonan probe are announced sometime next week.

“About a dozen officials handling East Asia and the Korean Peninsula at the State Department, the Defense Department and the Central Intelligence Agency held a closed-door meeting [Monday, Washington time] to talk about responses to the Cheonan sinking for the first time,” the source said. “They discussed measures to take in case North Korea attacked the ship, and they didn’t bring up any other possibility [that some other cause may have been responsible].”

North Korea has been a suspect in the sinking of the corvette, although it has denied responsibility. Of 104 sailors on board, 40 were found dead and six who went missing are presumed dead.

The second diplomatic source here said the U.S. government is considering a joint statement with South Korea that promises a stronger military alliance. The source added that the statement would include plans for a joint naval exercise between the two countries off the west coast, where the Cheonan sank.

These U.S. efforts will get more traction this week after Army Gen. Walter Sharp, the commander of the South Korea-U.S. Combined Forces Command in Seoul, arrives in Washington. On Monday, Korean time, Sharp had a closed-door discussion with South Korean Defense Minister Kim Tae-young regarding the next steps in the Cheonan investigation.

According to the second source, U.S. officials will not make their own conclusion public and instead will support South Korea’s. The United States is among four countries that have dispatched military and civilian experts to Seoul to assist South Korean investigators.

On the record, U.S. officials have sidestepped questions about the probe. They have said the investigation remains ongoing and they will draw conclusions once it is done.

“No one is trying to hasten unduly the conclusions on this, but we are determined to pursue this thoroughly and to follow the facts where they point,” James Steinberg, deputy secretary of state, told a forum at the Brookings Institution yesterday, Korean time. “Until we have clarity about this, I think it’s important for us to be careful about how we move forward, leaving open any of the possibilities.”

Pressed for the U.S. position on the Cheonan sinking, State Department spokesman Philip Crowley reiterated that the investigation is ongoing.

“When we see what are the specific conclusions from the investigation, which we continue to fully support, then we’ll draw specific conclusions from that,” he said in a press briefing.


By Kim Jung-wook [jeeho@joongang.co.kr]

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