North Korea's state-run Rodong Sinmun daily on Tuesday again claimed that the sinking of the South Korean Navy corvette Cheonan in 2010 was a fabrication by the South.
A day earlier, Kim Yong-chol, the head of North Korea's United Front Department, had jokingly introduced himself to South Korean reporters as "what South Koreans are calling the mastermind of the South Korean Navy corvette Cheonan sinking."
Apparently answering the furious response to the gaffe in the South Korean media, the Rodong Sinmun said the sinking was an "extraordinary plot concocted by the pro-American and conservative regime to heighten conflict in the North-South conflict."
But the South Korean government refrained from commenting on Kim's gaffe. A high-ranking Cheong Wa Dae official said he had "no particular comment," and a Unification Ministry official also said he had "nothing to say."
Even the Defense Ministry said it is "not appropriate to make an official comment." Opposition party lawmakers accused the government of being desperate to appease the North ahead of an inter-Korean summit later this month.
The Rodong Sinmun warned that Seoul government "must behave with discretion by keeping in mind that it will pay dearly by committing flippant acts at a critical time like this."
The families of the 46 sailors who died aboard the Cheonan were enraged by North Korea's comments and the South Korean government's silence. Jeon Joon-young, a survivor of the sinking, told the Chosun Ilbo, "If the sinking was a fabrication, then who killed the sailors? I was deeply distressed and insulted by the jokey attitude of Kim Yong-chol and the North Korean media's continued denial."
Chung Young-tae, a researcher at the Korea Institute for National Unification, said, "Improvements in cross-border relations are good, but we need to point out what needs to be pointed out. It's disappointing to see the government failing to make any comments after North Korea made a joke out of the tragedy."
The government has been accommodating to Kim since he attended the closing ceremony of the Winter Olympics in Pyeongchang. It took just three to four hours to accept North Korea's proposal to send him even though his involvement in the sinking is an accepted fact here. The following day, the Unification Ministry distributed a statement to reporters saying an international inquiry into the sinking did not single out Kim as the main culprit.
In the National Assembly the same day, Kim Sang-kyun at the National Intelligence Service, told lawmakers that there was "no clear evidence showing Kim Yong-chol ordered" the sinking. Defense Ministry spokeswoman Choi Hyun-soo told reporters, "There is no official reference to Kim Yong-chol or the General Reconnaissance Bureau in connection with the attack" in the ministry's records.
But in November 2010, then defense minister Kim Tae-young told a National Assembly hearing that the government believes Kim Kyok-sik, then minister of the People's Armed Forces, and Kim Yong-chol, who headed the Reconnaissance Bureau, were directly responsible. The government identified the two officials based on ample evidence gathered at the time.
In August of 2010, then U.S. president Barack Obama issued an executive order identifying North Korea as the culprit and placed Kim Yong-chol on a list of individuals subject to sanctions. One diplomatic source said the order "was aimed at holding Kim Yong-chol responsible for the attack on the Cheonan. Even if cross-border relations improve, we must not ignore the truth."
South and North Korean officials hold hands at a joint concert in Pyongyang on Tuesday.