South Korea said Monday it has detected what is believed to be a rear part of a sunken Navy vessel, which might be carrying crew members who went missing after a mysterious explosion tore apart the ship near the border with North Korea three days ago.
Search continues for missing soldiers on sunken S. Korean vessel near border
The 1,200-ton South Korean Navy corvette "Cheonan," carrying a crew of 104, sank late Friday near the Yellow Sea border with North Korea after an unexplained powerful explosion that officials and witnesses said snapped the vessel in two. Fifty-eight sailors, including the ship's captain, were rescued, but 46 others are still missing.
The military found the front of the Navy ship Sunday, but was unable to detect for days the location of the rear of the broken vessel, where the majority of the missing sailors are presumed to be trapped.
With the ship shutting out water for a maximum of 69 hours after going under, according to experts, the clock was ticking for the survival of the missing crew.
On Monday, officials said that a 30-meter-long object has been detected by sonar in waters about 40-50 meters from the scene, and that it is believed to be the back of the wrecked vessel.
"We're using an unmanned camera to confirm," a military official said Monday, asking for anonymity as he was not authorized to speak to media on the issue. "If the currents remain gentle, we may be able to see some positive results within the morning."
As anger and desperation of the relatives are growing, South Korean President Lee Myung-bak instructed a thorough investigation into "all possibilities" of the blast with the cause yet to be found.
Washington and Seoul have both been cautious talking about the possibility of Pyongyang's involvement, even though the disaster site is close to the scene of three naval clashes between the two divided Korean states in 1999, 2002 and most recently in November last year.
The U.S. Forces Korea in a statement Sunday said, "We have detected no special movements by North Korean forces."
As part of the widening efforts to locate the missing crew members, the U.S. 7th fleet will be sending its rescue vessel "Salvo," which participated in the Foal Eagle joint military drill with Seoul earlier this month, to assist later in the day, according to Seoul's defense ministry.
The South Korean military refused to make any negative presumptions about the fate of the missing sailors, stressing that "no deaths have been confirmed yet."
Sunday's searches found items that appear to be from the sunken boat, including body armor and safety helmets no further than 16 miles from where the site of the accident, according to the Joint Chiefs of Staff (JCS).
The JCS believes an explosion tore 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.
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 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]