msnbc.com news services
SEOUL - South Korea accused North Korea Thursday of firing a torpedo that sank a naval warship in March, killing 46 sailors in the country's worst military disaster since the Korean War.
South Korea said it would take "firm" measures against its impoverished and reclusive neighbor, which furiously responded that it was ready for war if Seoul or its allies imposed sanctions.
The issue has plunged already icy relations between the two Koreas deeper into the freezer, heightened tensions in the economically powerful region and tested the international position of China, Pyongyang's only major backer.
A report by investigators, including experts from the United States, Australia, Britain and Sweden, concluded that a North Korean submarine sank the Cheonan corvette.
The report, announced in a nationally televised news conference, said intelligence had shown that North Korean submarines were likely in operation near the scene of the sinking, with similar vessels of other neighboring countries all inside their territorial waters.
"The evidence points overwhelmingly to the conclusion that the torpedo was fired by a North Korean submarine," it said. "There is no other plausible explanation."
A senior South Korean government official said previously that the attack appeared to have been in revenge for a firefight near the disputed North-South border late last year in which the North's navy was humiliated.
International condemnation was immediate, with the stark exception of China, which analysts say is desperate to avoid any action that might destabilize its reclusive neighbor and lead to a spill-out into its territory.
U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, a former South Korean foreign minister, called the investigation results "deeply troubling," his spokesman said in a statement.
Both the United States and Britain gave their backing to the findings, with the White House calling it an act of aggression that was another sign of the North's unacceptable behavior.