SEOUL -- South Korea on Tuesday mourned the loss of 46 sailors who were killed in the sinking of the Cheonan warship in a torpedo attack by North Korea three years ago, with people across the country paying respects to those who perished and vowing to remember their sacrifices. The 1,200-ton Cheonan warship exploded and sank in the Yellow Sea on the night of March 26, 2010, killing 46 sailors. A South Korean-led international investigation found that North Korea torpedoed the ship, though Pyongyang denied its involvement.
A memorial ceremony was held at the national cemetery in Daejeon, 164 kilometers south of Seoul, where fallen soldiers are buried, with about 5,000 bereaved families, surviving crew members, senior government officials and military officers in attendance.
During the ceremony, President Park Geun-hye delivered a consolatory address in which she urged Pyongyang to abandon its nuclear weapons and missiles to become a responsible member of the international community.
Defense Minister Kim Kwan-jin called for the military to stay on high alert and be ready to strike back if North Korea attacks, saying the ability to strongly retaliate is the best deterrence against the communist country.
“I still feel great pain when I think of the soldiers who died in the cold sea,” Kim wrote in a letter to soldiers. “In light the Cheonan incident, we once again realized North Korea‘s bellicosity and hostile attitude toward the South.”
The Navy designated March 18-27 as a period of remembrance for the soldiers and will hold various commemoration events across the nation. They also opened an online memorial website. Over 15,000 people have left consolatory messages on the site dedicated to honoring the soldiers and the Underwater Demolition Team Warrant Officer Han Joo-ho, who died during search operations.
The wreck of the warship Cheonan, broken into two pieces and mangled by the explosion, has been on display at the Second Fleet Headquarters in Pyeongtaek, south of Seoul. About 560,000 people have visited the site to see the fate of the corvette, according to the Navy.
The deadly incident made South Koreans realize the dangers of North Korean attacks, especially after the North shelled the South Korean border island of Yeonpyeong in November 2010, killing two soldiers and two civilians.
The maritime border, called the Northern Limit Line, is a flash point between the two Koreas where two deadly skirmishes took place -- once in 1999, and again in 2002.
Despite steps taken and Seoul’s repeated warnings that it will strike back hard if provoked in the future, the North is now showing signs it may be ready to provoke the South once again.
Adm. Choi Yoon-hee, the Navy‘s chief, said Monday that the North could attack via sea if they are provoked, ordering servicemen to strongly retaliate in case of an attack.
In response to the escalating risk of North Korean provocations following the sinking of the Cheonan, South Korea upgraded its defense capacities along the Yellow Sea border, deploying submarines and anti-torpedo weapons as well as an increased numberof artillery shells on front-line islands.
The preparations are viewed as necessary as the inter-Korean military tensions have risen to new highs as the North has repeatedly threatened to launch a nuclear attack on the U.S. and the South after the recent adoption of punitive U.N. resolutions and the on-going joint military drills between the two allies.
Since a series of North Korean provocations, militaries of South Korea and the U.S. have revised their joint operational plan to better address potential North Korean provocations. The combined operational plan, which was signed between militaries of the two nations last week, went into effect immediately.
The two Koreas remain technically at war after the 1950-53 Korean War ended in a truce, not a peace treaty.
In Pyongyang, North Korea on Tuesday reiterated its innocence and said it will not tolerate any attempts to use the incident against the North.
“Puppet regimes groundlessly linked the cause of the sinking of the navy vessel to us,” the North’s mainstream newspaper Rodong Sinmun said, stressing that the Cheonan sank in the waters closely watched by South Korean military forces. The newspaper article said probe results by the multinational investigation team are “full of doubts,” claiming that South Korea denied its proposal to open a joint investigation into the sinking. South Korea is fueling confrontation by using the sinking of Cheonan as an opportunity to raise anti-North campaigns, the newspaper said, adding the South‘s “trumpeting of retaliation will soon become a tragic death march.”