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South Korean sailors say blast came from outside the vessel

It could take weeks for engineers to salvage the South Korean warship that sank in waters disputed by North Korea after a mysterious explosion and provide a definitive explanation of what caused the disaster. But some signs are pointing to North Korea, raising uncomfortable questions for the South’s government.

On Thursday, surviving crew members went public with their account, saying they were convinced that the explosion came from outside the ship. That follows remarks last week by Defense Minister Kim Tae-young before the National Assembly that the military had not ruled out the possibility that the ship was hit by a mine or torpedo. Kim added, “A more likely possibility is a torpedo attack.”

If North Korea is ultimately found culpable, it will amount to one of the most serious military provocations since the Korean War ended in a truce, leaving the peninsula technically in a state of war. But what options South Korea may have to retaliate is a difficult issue for the South.

The delicacy of the matter was on full display during Kim’s testimony. No sooner had he raised the possibility of a torpedo attack than he was handed a note from the office of President Lee Myung-bak. It warned him not to “lean too much toward the torpedo attack” and to stick to the official stance: keeping all possibilities open until the ship was salvaged and examined for cause of sinking.

White House presses Japan to reopen market to U.S. beef

The Obama administration is stepping up pressure on Japan to reopen its market to American beef, in hopes of helping ranchers and meatpackers gain full access to what was once their most lucrative market.

Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack has been dispatched to Tokyo to meet with his Japanese counterpart, Hirotaka Akamatsu, on Thursday.

Japan resumed American beef imports in 2006, but restricted them to meat from cattle 20 months old or younger — a limit that American exporters say has no scientific basis. Japan says older animals are more prone to developing mad cow disease. Japan also bans certain body parts.

Japan, the world’s largest net importer of food, abruptly banned shipments from American meat packers in 2003 after mad cow disease was discovered in one animal imported to the United States from Canada.

In 2003, Japan was the largest market for American beef, with exports of $1.4 billion; since then, American beef exports to Japan have averaged about $196 million, or less than 15 percent of 2003 levels.