South Korea Bids Final Farewell to 46 Navy Sailors

By: Yong-Ho Kim & Hyung-Jin Kim - AP Writers
By: Yong-Ho Kim & Hyung-Jin Kim - AP Writers

PYEONGTAEK, South Korea (AP) - South Korea honored 46 sailors Thursday with a tearful military funeral a month after a blast sank their warship, and officials vowed retaliation for those responsible as speculation mounted that North Korea may have torpedoed the vessel.

An estimated 2,800 mourners including President Lee Myung-bak
attended the outdoor funeral at a navy base south of Seoul for the
ceremony as sirens sounded across the country. A somber Lee and his
wife placed white chrysanthemums - a traditional flower of mourning
in South Korea - burned incense and bowed before the framed photos
of the soldiers, while buglers played taps.

Former President President Chun Doo-hwan, lawmakers and military
leaders also paid respects. The navy's chief of staff vowed
retaliation for whoever was responsible for the sinking, which is
still under investigation.

South Korea has not directly blamed its Cold War-era rival North
Korea, but suspicion has focused on Pyongyang given its history of
provocations and attacks on the South. South Korea's defense
minister said this week the blast was most likely caused by a
torpedo attack.

North Korea has denied any role in the sinking, one of South
Korea's worst naval disasters.

The names of each sailor was read out while Lee, clad in a black
suit and tie, placed military decorations on a giant alter below
individual photos of each man. They had all been posthumously
promoted by one rank in recent days.

Buddhist monks clad in orange and white robes chanted prayers at
the interfaith funeral. Roman Catholic priests and Christian
pastors also participated. Surviving relatives and other mourners
wept. Navy sailors fired a three-volley rifle salute.

The sailors went down with the 1,200-ton Cheonan near the tense
western sea border with North Korea on March 26 shortly after it
was torn apart by what investigators believe was an underwater
blast from outside the ship.

Fifty-eight sailors survived the sinking. The bodies of 40 of
the sailors were recovered, while six others remained unaccounted
for and are presumed dead. The retrieved bodies were cremated this
week.

The funeral took place at the 2nd Fleet headquarters in
Pyeongtaek, about 45 miles (70 kilometers) south of Seoul, the
Cheonan's home base. The ceremony was to be followed by burial
later Thursday. The events cap five days of official mourning that
has mixed outpourings of grief and sympathy with anger at possible
North Korean involvement.

The Cheonan was on a routine patrol before it split in two and
sank near the disputed western sea border, a scene of three bloody
sea battles between the rival Koreas that remain locked in a state
of war since their 1950-53 conflict ended in a truce instead of a
peace treaty.

Navy Chief of Staff Kim Sung-chan said in a funeral speech that
South Korea will find who attacked the Cheonan and retaliate.

"We cannot forgive this and must not forgive it and must not
forget it," Kim said in a solemn voice. "We will never sit idly
against whoever inflicted huge pain to our people. "

Military retaliation against Pyongyang, however, is considered
unlikely as it could lead to major conflict and frighten away
investors at a time when South Korea is recovering fast from the
global financial meltdown and prepares to hold a summit of leaders
from the Group of 20 in November.

In Seoul, people at the main railway station, including
uniformed soldiers on leave and traveling home, gathered around
television screens to pause in remembrance.

Kim Yong-mi wiped away tears with a handkerchief, her eyes red
and watery.

"So many died too young," said Kim, 68. "As someone who's
lived all these years more than they ever will, I'm ashamed to be
standing here, alive."

Flags in South Korea are flying at half-staff and many
government buildings in Seoul have hung large black-and-white
placards reading, "We will not forget your honorable sacrifice."
An estimated 400,000 people have reportedly visited mourning
locations set up across the country to pay respects.

North Korea has waged a slew of attacks against South Korea,
including a 1987 downing of a South Korean passenger plane that
killed all 115 people on board, one of the reasons the country is
suspected of involvement.

--

Hyung-jin Kim reported from Seoul, South Korea. Associated Press
writers Sangwon Yoon and Kelly Olsen contributed to this report.

(Copyright 2010 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)


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