Officials struggle to find cause of ship’s explosion

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Officials struggle to find cause of ship’s explosion

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Mystery surrounding the sinking of a South Korean naval patrol combat boat deepened yesterday as the administration and the military were unable to give a clear cause of the Friday night incident that sank a 1,200-ton vessel with 104 crew members onboard.

Shortly after the sinking of the Cheonan during a patrol mission in the Yellow Sea around 9:45 p.m. Friday, the Joint Chiefs of Staff said that an unidentified explosion had created a hole on the bottom of the ship, causing it to sink. Since the military was unable to approach the sunken ship due to the strong currents and low visibility, no announcement was made as of yesterday afternoon about what had caused the incident.

According to military sources, three possibilities were discussed by authorities - a North Korean attack, an internal explosion and the possibility of having ran upon a rock. The military, however, believes that it was unlikely that the Cheonan hit a rock because rocks are scarce in the area. The water depth in the area is reported to be about 24 meters (79 feet).

Whether the ship sank due to an internal cause or an external force can be determined by investigating which direction the metal sheets around the hole in the ship’s hull were bent, a Navy source said. “Even before the ship is salvaged, divers can investigate the breach on the vessel, particularly the metal sheets’ bending direction, to determine the cause,” he said. If the metal sheets were bent inward, the breach was created by an outer force, he said. A outward bend would indicate an internal explosion.

If the incident was caused by an explosion from inside, the military is expected to face severe criticism. A series of deadly accidents has marred the military throughout the month. Three pilots were killed in the F-5 fighter jet crash on March 2 and an Army helicopter crash on March 3 killed two more soldiers.

Military sources said the Cheonan’s munitions are stored at both the front and rear of the ship. Anti-submarine weapons on the ship could have exploded or fuel vapor at the bottom of the ship could have ignited by an electrical spark, but those possibilities are extremely low, sources said.

“In the history of the Navy, there was not a single case that sea-based artillery depth charges or fuel vapors exploded by accident,” said a retired Navy admiral. “It’s only possible when someone intentionally assists the explosion from inside.”

If the cause of the ship’s sinking is identified as an internal explosion, political damage to the ruling party is expected to be heavy ahead of the June 2 local elections. If the explosion was external, North Korea would be a clear suspect. Because the incident took place in the waters near the inter-Korean maritime border and the explosion was serious enough to sink the ship, government and military sources did not rule out a North attack.

Government officials and experts note that the North Korean military has repeatedly issued threats since the launch of the Lee Myung-bak administration. “In the inter-Korean naval skirmish in last November, the North’s Navy was defeated and Friday’s incident could have been retaliation,” said a government official.

“If the ship was sunk by a North attack, North Korean Gen. Kim Kyok-sik, in charge of the areas near the Yellow Sea, probably came up with a new offensive tactic such as using a semi-submarine armed with torpedoes,” said an intelligence official. “He is probably under heavy pressure for the defeat in last year’s naval skirmish.”

The Blue House and the U.S. military, however, said no abnormal signs have been detected in the North.

If the North is determined to have been responsible for the incident, inter-Korean relations will suffer another serious blow. “If the North is responsible for it, we should see that Pyongyang has begun preparations for a war,” said a South Korean official. “Which country could possibly be calm about such a situation?”

The North Korean government remained silent yesterday and its state-run media gave no reports about the incident. The North issued statements within six hours of the three naval skirmishes in the past.

While the authorities struggled to identify the cause, speculation grew about the possibilities. “It’s a sensitive issue, because we can not rule out any possibility,” said Naval Architecture and Ocean Engineering Professor Lee Hyun-yup of Chungnam National University. “Media reported that the ship had been split into two parts, and that may be caused by mines.” Lee said a breach created by a torpedo attack does not split a ship. “A ship can be split only when mines explode underneath the vessel,” Lee said.

He, however, added that a possibility of the internal explosion of ammunitions must not be ruled out. “When the amount of exploded gunpowder is significant, it’s possible that a ship can be broken in two,” Lee said.


By Kim Min-seok, Ser Myo-ja [myoja@joongang.co.kr]

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