A panel concluded yesterday that North Korea independently carried out the bombing of a Korean Air jet in 1987, countering persistent allegations that South Korea's then-rightist government masterminded the attack for political gain.
The airliner went down over Myanmar on Nov. 29, 1987, killing all 115 people on board. North Korea was quickly blamed for the bombing, and two agents from the North were arrested.
But suspicions, mostly raised by bereaved families, have persisted that the dictatorial regime of President Chun Doo-hwan and his intelligence service were involved in the attack, in order to blame the communist North and gain political support for the right-wing government with an upcoming presidential election.
The National Intelligence Service, South Korea's main spy agency, was ordered last year to set up a fact-finding committee to investigate the allegations.
The panel said yesterday that there was no evidence that Chun's government or the spy agency were involved, but that the government improperly used the incident for political purposes.
The accusations of South Korean involvement were "judged to be groundless," said Kwak Han-wang, a civilian member of the committee, adding the state intelligence agency never "plotted or had advance knowledge of" the bombing.
North Korea has denied any responsibility.
A victims' group questioned the outcome, pointing out that the committee reached a conclusion without questioning the sole surviving North Korean agent, of the two who were arrested in the bombing.
"Isn't it too irresponsible to draw a conclusion based only on circumstances and assumptions?" the group said in a statement.
The committee said the female agent, who is living in Seoul, refused to be interviewed for the probe. The other agent committed suicide right after his arrest in 1987.
The probe was part of a larger effort by the government of President Roh Moo-hyun to investigate suspicious incidents in the country's past, most of them during the rule of South Korea's former military dictators Chun and his predecessor former president Park Chung-hee.