Top brass ordered the Sokcho to fire
The South Korean Navy fired northward on the night of the Cheonan’s sinking at the order of the upper military chain of command, with orders to destroy a perceived threat on radar, a senior military official told the JoongAng Ilbo yesterday.
The 1,200-ton patrol combat corvette Sokcho shot at an unidentified object after the Cheonan sank on Friday night near Baengnyeong Island in the Yellow Sea near the inter-Korean border. The National Defense Ministry later explained that the target on the radar was identified as a flock of birds. They did not disclose at the time that the order came from the upper military chain of command.
“At the time, the Sokcho was operating a mission in the nearby waters and rushed to the explosion site to assist the Cheonan,” said the military official. “And it found an unidentified object moving fast toward the Northern Limit Line, and the military command ordered the Sokcho to fire its 76-millimeter guns.”
The Sokcho fired 130 shots toward the object 90 minutes after the Cheonan’s sinking.
“The command believed that the object was relevant to the sinking, so an order to shoot to destroy was made,” the source said. “But the Sokcho made sure not to fire beyond the NLL.” The Northern Limit Line is the de facto maritime border between the two Koreas in the Yellow Sea.
According to the source, the object still crossed the NLL and moved into North Korean waters. The military, therefore, concluded that it was a flock of birds. A Blue House official also said the conclusion was made because the movements were random on the radar.
A Navy specialist, however, raised skepticism, noting that the North could have deceived the South. “Birds fly at the speed of 30 to 40 knots, and the speed is about the same as the North’s semi-submersibles,” he said, speaking on the condition of anonymity. “It could have been a deception tactic of the North.”
He said the North had infiltrated the South in the past by exploiting the limitations of the radar on ships such as the Cheonan and Sokcho, which is incapable of indicating the altitude of an object.
Meanwhile, a top government official denied a media report about North Korean submarine activity at the time of the sinking. The Chosun Ilbo reported Wednesday that U.S. and South Korean intelligence authorities had detected “a submarine disappearing and reappearing at a North Korean submarine base on the west coast not far from the site of the wreck around Friday, the day the ship sank.”
Denying the report, the official said there was no suspicious movement in the North. “We have counted the numbers and locations of North Korean submarines before and after the sinking, but there was no special movement,” he said.
Another official, however, said spy satellites have limits in detecting semi-submersibles. A military source also said a North Korean semi-submersible is capable of being armed with two torpedoes.
He also said sonar detection of semi-submersibles in the waters near the Baengnyeong Island is difficult because of fast currents.
Navy specialists said a North Korean submersible’s torpedo attack would be more likely a possibility. They also said the North could have used an unmanned vessel to attack the Cheonan, adding that Pyongyang had once distributed catalogs of the new remote-controllable ships to Latin American nations in 2007 for arms exports.
Amidst growing speculation about the cause of the sinking of the Cheonan, a Defense Ministry source said it will include civilian experts on its investigation team to heighten its credibility. “Since the cut sections of the hull were confirmed by divers during the rescue operation, we have decided to dispatch the investigation team to probe the cause of the sinking,” the source said. “Speculation is rampant and we believe it is necessary to clarify the cause as soon as possible.”
Divers who had managed to confirm the cut sections of the Cheonan’s bow reportedly informed the ministry that the sections were cut clean, as if it was split with a knife, further deepening the mystery on what caused the sinking.
Rescue efforts for the 46 missing sailors also continued yesterday, but the poor weather conditions have hampered the divers’ underwater mission. The military said yesterday that divers have managed to open one door each on the bow and stern. “Opening the door on the stern does not mean that we will be able to enter right away,” said Commodore Lee Ki-sik of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. “We go in slowly and explore a path to enter further.”
Lee said the weather conditions have worsened drastically, hampering the operation. The search was hindered by 2.5-meter (8-foot) high waves, 12-meter-per-second winds and rain, Lee said. The currents also flew at the speed of 5.6 knots, and the divers were forced to suspend their underwater mission scheduled for 9 a.m.
After a diver’s death during the rescue mission Tuesday, the military conducted a safety education seminar and medical checkups that night. Asked if the military plans to improve the gear for deep sea diving, Lee said the preparation will take at least three days. “We will consider it, but the rescue operation is so urgent that we will continue our operation as it is now.” As of now, the divers are using scuba gear to reach the stern, located 45 meters underwater.
Families of the missing sailors yesterday held a media conference, making three demands. They requested the government and the military to continue the rescue operation until the last sailor would be accounted for.
Expressing strong skepticism toward the military’s explanation about the situation, the families also demanded that all information about the rescue operation should be presented to them. An official session with the military authorities to ask questions was also demanded.
By Kim Min-seok, Ser Myo-ja [firstname.lastname@example.org]