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Tongyeong kept from Sewol scene

Expensive rescue ship is complete but high-tech gear doesn’t work

May 15,2014
Questions are being asked why the Tongyeong, the Korean Navy’s state-of-the-art rescue ship, wasn’t mobilized during rescue operations for the Sewol ferry - and suspicions are spreading that internal corruption or incompetence in the Ministry of National Defense led to it being useless when it was truly needed.

The 3,500-ton Tongyeong, the first Korean-made rescue and salvage ship, cost some 160 billion won ($155 million) to build from 2010 to 2012.

Its intended purpose is to rescue ships in distress and tow away ships damaged due to engine failure or enemy action, such as the Cheonan warship that was sunk in 2010.

It is also supposed to be a major asset in ocean accidents such as the Sewol sinking or the cleanup of an oil spill.

The ATS-II-class ship, 107.5 meters long and 16.8 meters wide, was constructed by Daewoo Shipbuilding & Marine Engineering and launched in Sept. 2012.

The ship is equipped with an underwater remotely-operated vehicle (ROV) and side scan sonar, a flight deck and equipment to support manned diving operations and can search up to 3,000 meters underwater.

Its deployment could have made for a smoother rescue operation process after the 6,825-ton Sewol capsized in waters off Jindo on the southwestern coast on April 16.

The Tongyeong was supposed to have been dispatched to the scene, according to documents obtained by Kim Kwang-jin, a lawmaker of the New Politics Alliance for Democracy and a member of the National Assembly’s defense committee, from the Navy and the Defense Acquisition Program Administration.

The documents, which Kim disclosed publicly on Tuesday, showed that after the Sewol capsized, Navy Chief of Staff Admiral Hwang Ki-chul ordered the Tongyeong to be deployed to the accident scene twice.

The Navy, Defense Acquisition Program Administration and Daewoo even signed a contract to deploy the vessel for the Sewol rescue operations, according to the documents.

But the Tongyeong was never deployed. In fact, it’s never been delivered to the Navy by Daewoo and is still at its Okpo Shipyard in Geoje, South Gyeongsang.

The Navy has not accepted delivery because the equipment doesn’t work properly.

Daewoo, on the other hand, says the fault is with the Defense Acquisition Program Administration, which provided the equipment.

On April 18, Ministry of National Defense spokesman Kim Min-seok, Defense Ministry spokesman said “the Navy has not yet confirmed if the sonar and underwater robotic devices and other rescue-related devices are performing up to capacity.”

After the Tongyeong was completed over a year and half ago, it was scheduled to be delivered to the Navy last October. Deployment was postponed several times because of the faulty equipment and now isn’t scheduled until September.

On Monday, Kim said, “Because the capacity didn’t match the standards of the Navy, there were plans for another test and evaluation before [the Tongyeong] will be delivered to the Navy by this September.”

According to documents obtained by lawmaker Kim’s office, however, key devices such as the ship’s remotely-operated vehicle and advanced sonar system, which help locate and detect underwater objects including drowning victims, were categorized as combat equipment that would be government-furnished.

A 2009 document showed the Defense Acquisition Program Administration responsible for providing the ROV and sonar equipment.

The situation is sparking criticism that Defense Acquisition Program Administration acquired shoddy devices due to incompetence or corruption or both.

BY SARAH KIM [sarahkim@joongang.co.kr]





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