SEOUL, South Korea – SEOUL, South Korea (AP) — The scent of incense filled the air Monday as South Korea's president bowed before a memorial for young sailors killed when their warship sank in an explosion the defense minister says was most likely caused by a torpedo.
A solemn President Lee Myung-bak joined mourners in paying his respects to the 46 men who went down with the Cheonan on March 26 after an explosion ripped the ship in two. He laid a single white chrysanthemum at an altar set up for five days of mourning.
"The Republic of Korea will never forget your honorable sacrifice," Lee wrote in a condolence book.
The government has not blamed North Korea outright for the disaster, one of South Korea's worst, but suspicion has focused on the regime, given its history of provocation and attacks on wartime rival South Korea.
Pyongyang has denied involvement, but last week, a Seoul-based activist, Choi Sung-yong, told The Associated Press that a North Korean military officer he spoke with by phone called it a retaliatory attack for a deadly November skirmish.
On Sunday, Defense Minister Kim Tae-young said a torpedo was the most likely culprit. Investigators examining the wreckage announced separately that a close-range, external explosion likely sank the 1,200-ton ship.
The "bubble jet effect" from a torpedo — the rapidly expanding bubble an underwater torpedo blast can create and the subsequent destructive column of water unleashed — was the most likely cause, Kim told reporters. He did not speculate on who was behind the attack and said it was still too early to determine the exact cause.
The Cheonan was on a routine patrol when it sank in the rough Yellow Sea, not far from the spot where the two Koreas' militaries have clashed three times since 1999, most recently in November.
The two sides technically remain at war because their 1950-53 conflict ended in a truce, not a peace treaty. North Korea disputes the maritime border drawn by the United Nations.
Fifty-eight sailors were rescued. Forty bodies have been recovered, and six missing crew are presumed dead, officials have said.
Since Sunday, when South Korea started a five-day mourning period, at least 9,600 people have visited an altar in downtown Seoul to pay their respects, from war veterans dressed in medal-bedecked uniforms to mothers explaining to their children about the "uncles" who died protecting the country.
One woman sobbed Monday as she stroked a photo of one of the sailors, most of whom were in their 20s.
"We will never forget you," one note on a message board read. Another read, "There, in heaven, I hope you will get to live the life you weren't able to live in this world."
"I feel like it was my friends who died on that ship," said college student Chung Jae-mi, 21. "It hurts me to think that they were as old as I am."
Kim Chang-hwa, 62, traveled from the Seoul suburb of Seongnam to see the memorial.
"I wish I could find the people responsible for the sinking and kill them myself with my bare hands," he said.
North Korea, meanwhile, has apparently promoted a general in charge of military operations, South Korean officials said Monday.
Kim Myong Guk, chief of operations for the People's Army, was promoted to four-star general in 1994. However, he appeared in photos with only three stars following the November maritime battle.
Recent photos of Kim in state media showed he had regained his four-star rank.
The National Intelligence Service said it was checking whether the apparent promotion was related to the ship sinking.
"He is the person who might have been directly involved" if the North masterminded the blast, analyst Yoo Ho-yeol of Korea University said.
Associated Press writer Sangwon Yoon contributed to this report.