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SEOUL, South Korea – South Korea’s defense minister on Sunday said a torpedo attack was the most likely cause for the sinking of a South Korean warship that killed at least 40 sailors last month, a statement that inched the country closer to placing blame on North Korea and added urgency to the question of how the South might respond.

Still, the minister did not mention the North, continuing a cautious government approach that reflects the lack of good options available to South Korea’s leaders if they decide Pyongyang was responsible for what would be one of the most serious attacks since the Korean War ended in a truce.

Any military retaliation could provoke a response from a country with the capacity to strike Seoul and a mercurial leader who has proved to be violent and unpredictable. A lesser response, hardliners in the South argue, could lead North Korean leader Kim Jong Il to conclude that he could lash out again without facing consequences.

The announcement Sunday by Defense Minister Kim Tae-young appears to fit a pattern that some analysts say shows the government is carefully building a case for a limited response – doling out information slowly so emotions ease before a final announcement of blame.

Kim’s statement comes just two days after South Korea’s President Lee Myung-bak met with two former presidents, in what was understood in Confucian Korea as an attempt to consult elders and build consensus about how to move forward.

The two former presidents, Chun Doo-hwan and Kim Young-sam, once again proved their bona fides as hardliners on the North, speaking emotionally about past attacks by Pyongyang – including a bombing in 1983 that killed several Cabinet members.

Both men also expressed certainty that North Korea was behind the ship’s sinking and urged Lee to deal “resolutely” with the North. But, significantly, neither mentioned the possibility of even a limited military attack, instead recommending harsh economic punishment, including the possibility of further dismantling the “Sunshine Policy” of reaching out to the North with aid and business ventures.

The meeting could provide political cover for Lee with fellow conservatives since Chun Doo-hwan, a former military dictator, remains one of the country’s most prominent anti-communists. During his brutal rule, those who argued for better relations with the North were often imprisoned and sometimes tortured, as were those who wrote or read books that cast the North in anything but an intensely critical light.