President Lee visits shipwreck rescue site near North border
The Blue House said that Lee is the first South Korean president to visit Baengnyeong Island, 16 kilometers (10 miles) from North Korea's west coast, where a host of ground-to-ship guided missile and coastline artillery are deployed.
"President Lee was briefed on rescue work and met the families of the missing," Blue House spokesman Park Sun-kyoo told reporters.
The 1,200-ton warship Cheonan sank Friday night after an unexplained explosion that tore the vessel into two. Only 58 of the 104 crew members aboard were rescued. The other 46 are still missing, and the cause of the accident has yet to be confirmed.
Guarded by fighter jets as is routine, the presidential chopper first landed on the 14,000-ton Dokdo amphibious landing ship which is supervising the rescue operation. The president was transported on a rubber boat to a 3,000-ton Gwangyang rescue ship for the briefing. He also visited a Marine Corp base on Bangnyeong Island, according to the spokesman.
The Blue House had asked for a strict embargo on the president's trip until Lee had arrived in a "safe area."
Park stressed that Lee's surprise trip there, which some aides advised against, was not for a photo opportunity.
"It shows the president's awareness of the seriousness of this incident and his heart going out to the young missing soldiers," he said.
The visit was also intended to deliver a message to the military that it should not be distracted by the incident, Park said.
Chairing the weekly cabinet meeting earlier in the day, Lee ordered his military to stay alert against North Korea following the sinking of the ship
"As [the sinking] occurred at the frontline, [the military] should be thoroughly prepared for moves by North Korea," Lee was quoted as saying.
Defense Minister Kim Tae-young said the military is looking into the case, leaving "every possibility" open, including the North's involvement. Media here have raised the possibility that a sea mine floated by North Korea across the border might be to blame for the explosion.
The president called for a "speedy and scientific" investigation into the incident, instructing his administration to make sure the results are fully disclosed.
The two Koreas remain in a state of war as their three-year war ended in an armistice, not a formal peace treaty, in 1953. Their navies skirmished in 1999, 2002, and 2009 around the Northern Limit Line, a de-facto maritime border drawn by the U.S.-led United Nations, but unacknowledged by the North.
Pyongyang has been silent on the incident. In its latest official statement, the North warned that the South will face deadly consequences if it continues to allow journalists into the heavily-armed demilitarized zone dividing the two Koreas.
South Korea's Defense Ministry had allowed television reporters and other journalists to enter the "no man's land" inside the DMZ as part of events commemorating the 60th anniversary of the outbreak of the war. [Yonhap]