South Korea Buries Sailors Killed In Ship Sinking

A navy funeral was held in South Korea Thursday for 46 sailors who died when their warship was destroyed by a blast last month. Nearly 60 seamen were rescued but six remain missing. The incident occurred close to the ill-defined maritime border between North and South Korea, and suspicion has fallen on the North.

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South Korea held funerals today for many sailors. Forty-six sailors died when their warship was destroyed by an explosion just over a month ago. Their ship went down close to the ill-defined, maritime border between North and South Korea, and suspicion has fallen on North Korea. Doualy Xaykaothao reports from Daejeon, South Korea.

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Unidentified Group: (Singing in foreign language)

Unidentified Man: (Foreign language spoken)

DOUALY XAYKAOTHAO: It was a national day of mourning for the sailors who perished on the coastal patrol ship Cheonan. Here at Daejeon National Cemetery, some of the bodies were cremated and interred; others were buried earlier. The day was bright and clear, a stark contrast to the last four days of endless rain.

But it didn't stop the tens of thousands of South Koreans from burning incense and placing flowers at memorial altars across the country.

Ms. KIM KUNYJA: (Foreign language spoken)

XAYKAOTHAO: Seventy-two-year-old Kim Kunyja(ph) says all South Koreans are grieving, and she had to come to pay her respects.

Ms. KUNYJA: (Foreign language spoken)

XAYKAOTHAO: Thinking of the grieved parents and of those who died as if they were our own sons and grandsons, I couldn't not come, she says. I feel so sorry for them, I can't even sleep.

Another woman in her 20s was visibly upset as she looked at photos of the young sailors at a memorial altar near Seoul's City Hall.

Unidentified Woman: (Through translator) It was such an unexpected thing. Although I didn't suffer it directly, it saddens me to think of these people and their families. I'm not of the generation that went through the Korean War, but this brings home to me the pain of the time when many more people died. I just think, what a shame.

XAYKAOTHAO: The Cheonan sailors are officially listed as killed in action. A preliminary military investigation points to an external explosion that split the patrol ship in half, but there has been no official word about what caused the blast. Notes left under the photos of the sailors speculate that North Korea is to blame.

If that is proven, Kim Doo Jong(ph), a retired congressman, says it will pose a truly difficult problem for the South Korean government.

Mr. KIM DOO JONG (Retired South Korean Congressman): (Through translator) Very difficult situation - very, because we can neither start a war because of this, nor can we forgive it. The best thing is, through solidarity with the many countries in the free world and with the support of China and Russia, we make some kind of effort that forcibly prevents North Korea from doing such a thing again.

XAYKAOTHAO: If the North sank the warship, South Korea has no good options for retaliating. Analysts say a military attack could result in a North Korean counterattack, perhaps even direct artillery fire across the DMZ into Seoul. Tighter sanctions against the North won't work unless China enforces them, and Beijing won't tighten the screws too much because it's afraid of collapsing the North Korean economy and unleashing a flood of refugees into China.

Choi Jin Wook, a senior research fellow for Korea Institute for National Unification, says the sinking of the Cheonan ship has been a rude awakening for South Koreans.

Mr. CHOI JIN WOOK (Senior Research Fellow, Korea Institute for National Unification): Many people probably believe that as long as we can make our economic pie bigger and bigger, all the problems will be gone, including North Korean problem. That will be, you know, absorbed by our economic growth. But we began to realize, all of a sudden, you know, economic growth is one thing, and security issues another.

XAYKAOTHAO: And the dangerous standoff between North and South Korea goes on.

For NPR News, I'm Doualy Xaykaothao in Daejeon, South Korea.

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