U.S. experts join Cheonan probe

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U.S. experts join Cheonan probe

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United States experts are scheduled to visit South Korea as early as next week to help Korean investigators determine what caused a naval ship to split in two and sink near the maritime border in the Yellow Sea.

According to the Joint Chiefs of Staff in Seoul yesterday, 14 high-ranking military officers from South Korea and the U.S. Forces in South Korea, including Gen. Lee Sang-eui, chairman of South Korea’s Joint Chiefs of Staff, and Gen. Walter Sharp, the commander of the U.S. Forces Korea, agreed to dispatch U.S. experts to Seoul to help the investigation.

Lee requested U.S. help during a meeting of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and Sharp said he had already proposed the idea in Washington and received approval, said a defense official under the Joint Chiefs of Staff on condition of anonymity.

“I believe technical support from U.S. experts will be helpful in carrying out a balanced analysis of the incident,” Lee said. “I would also like to take this opportunity to thank the U.S. military for its support in the rescue mission.”

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According to Yonhap News, Sharp said that the United States will continue to provide the equipment and manpower needed to assist the efforts, and that it is important to continue close coordination as the operation transitions from an underwater rescue to a salvage mission.

The Joint Chiefs of Staff said the U.S. team is composed of experts studying naval weapons and maritime disasters at the Naval Surface Warfare Center in Maryland, and experts researching explosives at the Army Materiel Systems Analysis Activity also in Maryland.

“As far as I know, the United States will provide technical assistance, such as estimating the weight of the sunken hull from floating cranes,” Commodore Lee Gi-sik, chief of information operations at the Joint Chiefs of Staff in Seoul, said during a media briefing. “They are also going to collect wreckage debris on the sea bottom and search for missing sailors.”

Experts said that Seoul can take advantage of U.S. advanced technology. In addition, Seoul will be able to ensure the objectivity of the investigation. It can also demonstrate the strength of the South Korea-U.S. alliance in case North Korean involvement in the incident is confirmed, experts said.

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Gen. Lee Sang-eui, left, chairman of South Korea’s Joint Chiefs of Staff, and Gen. Walter Sharp, right, commander of U.S. Forces Korea, shake hands yesterday before meeting in the conference room of South Korea’s Defense Ministry in Yongsan District, central Seoul. [Joint Press Corps]

An unidentified military expert in Seoul said that the United States wants to determine the cause of the sinking to establish countermeasures to protect its own ships in case a North Korean torpedo attack was the cause.

In his biweekly radio address yesterday, President Lee Myung-bak said the government will probe the cause of the sinking thoroughly by looking into all possibilities.

“Rather than giving in to hasty judgment and indefinite predictions, we will do our best to reveal the cause of the sinking with precise evidence and definite facts,” he said. “Currently a joint investigation team composed of civilian experts and government and military officials are looking closely into the incident. Like in advanced countries, accuracy is what counts rather than speed in discovering the cause of major disasters.”

South Korea began work Sunday to salvage the Navy ship after ending its underwater search and rescue for dozens of missing sailors on board.

Families of the missing crew members asked the military to suspend the rescue operation on Saturday night for fear of additional casualties among divers, and as the chances of finding survivors grew increasingly unlikely after Saturday’s discovery of one of the 46 sailors’ bodies.

The body of Senior Chief Petty Officer Nam Ki-hoon, 35, was recovered at around 6:10 p.m. inside the petty officers’ dining facility in the rear section of the corvette.

The 1,200-ton Navy patrol corvette Cheonan sank on the night of March 26 after an unexplained blast split it in two near the disputed western sea border with North Korea.

Fifty-eight men were rescued at the scene. The 45 missing sailors are believed to have been trapped inside the stern of the sunken ship.

No cause has been determined for the explosion and, despite some speculation, there has been no confirmation of North Korean involvement in the sinking.


By Lee Min-yong, Kim Min-seok [smartpower@joongang.co.kr]

이상의 합참의장·샤프 사령관 회동, 폭약·해상 무기 전문가도 보내기로

월터 샤프 주한미군사령관은 천안함 인양 작업에 대해 “미국 정부는 최고 수준에서 전폭적인 지원을 아끼지 않을 것”이라고 5일 말했다. 샤프 사령관은 이날 국방부 청사에서 이상의 합참의장과 가진 한·미 군 고위급 협조회의에서 이같이 밝히고 “미국은 기술과 장비, 인력을 지원해 인양 작업이 성공적으로 진행되도록 보장할 것”이라고 강조했다.

샤프 사령관은 이 의장이 천안함 침몰 원인 조사와 관련한 지원을 요청한 데 대해서도 “이미 워싱턴에 이 사항을 건의해 승인을 받았고 미측의 최고 전문가팀을 지원할 것”이라고 답했다고 합참은 전했다. 미측 전문가는 미 해군 수상전분석센터(NSWC)의 해상 무기 및 해상 조난사고 분석요원, 육군 물자체계연구소(AMSAA)의 폭약 전문가 등이다. 이들은 우리 측 민·군 합동조사단과 더불어 천안함의 폭발음과 두 동강 난 원인을 분석하는 시뮬레이션 작업에 참가하게 된다. 또 어뢰 또는 기뢰로 추정되는 폭발물 파편을 수거할 경우 정밀 분석 작업도 공동으로 진행한다.
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