Rescue operations continue in search of survivors from sunken ship
The 1,200-ton South Korean Navy corvette "Cheonan" carrying 104 crew went down late Friday near the Yellow Sea border with North Korea after an unexplained explosion that officials and witnesses said split the vessel in half. Fifty-eight of them, including the ship's captain, were pulled out alive, and 46 are still missing.
A North Korean attack was initially suspected, but officials now say that is unlikely. The site of Friday's accident has been the scene of three bloody skirmishes between the navies of the two countries last year, 1999 and 2002.
A 79-member ship salvage unit from the Navy reached near waters early Sunday for the sailors still unaccounted for, but backed out just minutes after diving due to rough waves and low water temperature, the spokesman of the defense ministry said.
Most of the 46 missing soldiers are believed to have been inside the boat when it sank and, according to experts, are unlikely to survive more than 72 hours in the cold water.
Efforts will continue, Won Tae-jae added, with a 3,000-ton rescue vessel arriving at the scene later in the day.
"We are hopeful, as the weather is relatively good compared to the previous day," Won told a press briefing held a day after the divers failed to reach the sunken vessel under shallow waters about 24 meters deep.
The military hasn't even been able to detect the exact location of the vessel because of strong tides, Won said, adding rescuers were working "with a very limited timeframe."
Seoul's Joint Chiefs of Staff (JCS) said an explosion appears to have torn a hole in the rear of the vessel, shutting off the engine and taking the ship down in less than three hours. Officials remain cautious about the cause, however, until specialists are able to reach and investigate the craft.
After visiting the disaster site Saturday, Defense Minister Kim Tae-young told the press that the government is "yet to track down the exact cause behind the tragedy."
"The vessel appeared to have been split into half," he said. "But making predictions is meaningless in this situation, I believe. Please bear with us."
The Seoul government is refraining from any comments suggesting Pyongyang's involvement in the incident.
Delivering President Lee Myung-bak's instruction made to his ministers to conduct prompt investigations into all possibilities, Lee's spokesperson Kim Eun-hye said Seoul was "not detecting any unusual moves" from Pyongyang.
The incident comes amid heightened tension between the two Koreas, which technically remain in a state of conflict since the 1950-1953 Korean
War ended in a truce, not a peace treaty. North Korea has said in recent weeks it is bolstering its defense in response to joint South Korean-U.S. military drills that were held this month.
North Korea does not recognize the western sea border, drawn by the United Nations at the end of the Korean War, and claims that it should be redrawn further south.
The North's Korean Central News Agency reported Saturday that the country's leader Kim Jong-il attended a performance by the state symphony orchestra without specifying a date.
Military officials are narrowing down the possibilities to the vessel's collision with a rock, a torpedo attack from outside forces, including North Korea, or an internal explosion due to the gunpowder and explosives the ship was carrying.
The Navy plans to salvage the sunken vessel for investigation to determine what caused the incident, a long process that may take at least 20 days, officials said.
The sunken vessel, 88 meters long and 10m wide, was put into service in 1989 and was equipped with missiles and torpedoes, according to Navy officials.
The incident is said to be one of South Korea's worst naval disasters.
The country's worst maritime accident occurred in 1974, when a ship sank off the southeast coast in stormy weather, killing 159 sailors and coast guard personnel. In 1967, 39 sailors were killed by North Korean artillery. [Yonhap]