Stern indicates external explosion

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Stern indicates external explosion

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Kim Tae-young

As an initial examination of the Cheonan’s wreckage confirmed that an external explosion most likely sank the warship, in its strongest characterization to date the Lee Myung-bak administration yesterday called the tragedy a grave national security issue and admitted that the military had been too slow to respond to the crisis.

Defense Minister Kim Tae-young apologized for the ministry and the military’s poor handling of the “unprecedented incident” and for losing the public’s trust.

“The government and the military see this incident as a grave situation of national security,” Kim said at a press conference yesterday, amid mounting concerns of possible North Korean involvement. “We are doing our best to cope with it.”

After Kim spoke, a top investigation official announced that the probable cause of the Cheonan’s sinking was an external blast.

“After a visual inspection of the severed section of the ship and the interior and exterior of the hull, we concluded that an external explosion is highly likely to be the cause, rather than an internal explosion,” said Yoon Duk-yong, a scientist heading the joint military-civilian investigation team.

The 1,200-ton Navy corvette sank on the night of March 26 in the Yellow Sea near the inter-Korean border after an unexplained explosion tore the ship in two. After weeks of rescue and salvage operations, 38 sailors have been confirmed killed in the tragedy, while eight are still unaccounted for.

According to Yoon, a professor emeritus at the Korea Advanced Institute of Science and Technology, the initial examination of the salvaged stern ruled out the possibilities of internal explosion and metal fatigue. The theory that the Cheonan was wrecked on a rock was also dismissed, Yoon said.

“The metal plates of the hull were bent toward the inside,” Yoon said. “The right side of the hull was destroyed and opened, so it appeared that the explosion took place on the right side. It is the experts’ judgment that such damage was caused by an outside explosion.”

Asked if the ship could have been destroyed by a bubble jet created by an underwater explosion, rather than directly hit by a torpedo or a mine, Yoon said, “We are reviewing both possibilities that the ship was damaged by direct contact or by an explosion that took place near the ship without direct contact.”

Yoon said more detailed analysis is needed after the bow and other debris have been salvaged. Including civilian experts and U.S. navy specialists, 38 investigators participated in the initial examination, he said.

Army Lieutenant General Park Jung-yi, the military chief of the joint probe team, said debris has been collected to analyze the cause, and operations are ongoing to collect more evidence at the site of the sinking.

But even as the investigators announced their initial findings, the Blue House yesterday asked the public to wait for the final results of the probe.

“The unprecedented incident took place near the inter-Korean border, and it’s natural that the military sees this as a national security situation and the public is concerned about it,” said Blue House spokesman Park Sun-kyoo. “The incident made all of us aware that this peaceful land can be gripped by concerns in an instant. This is the reality of a divided Korea. Until a final, scientific conclusion is made about the case, we will not assume anything.”

As the investigation moves forward, the United States showed concern that any involvement by the North could have serious consequences on the international efforts to resume the stalled six-party nuclear talks.

“Let’s not jump to a conclusion here,” a U.S. State Department official said in Washington yesterday (Korean time). “I wouldn’t necessarily link them together. But obviously certain results could have a profound effect.”

While the defense minister’s characterization of the incident was the strongest such statement to date, the sinking had been treated as urgent since its earliest hours. President Lee held his first emergency meeting with security ministers and Blue House aides within an hour of the sinking, and has met with them to discuss the matter several times since then.

Nonetheless, Kim admitted that the military failed to handle the initial stages of the crisis successfully.

“Since the administration launched, the military has established an immediate combat-ready posture by reinforcing operational authorities of field commanders and updating the operations rules near the de facto maritime border of Northern Limit Line in the Yellow Sea,” he said. “Despite that effort to strengthen our national security, we were baffled by this unexpected incident.

“We will make the outcome public as soon as it is revealed, and we will devise a clear and strict countermeasure,” the minister said.

The military will request the Board of Audit and Inspection to probe its initial handling of the disaster and take any necessary measures to improve its shortcomings.

Of the 104 men aboard the Cheonan at the time of the explosion, 58, including the captain, were rescued, while 46 were unaccounted for shortly after the sinking. Thirty-eight of the missing sailors’ bodies were found, and the families of the remaining eight yesterday asked the military to call off the search for them.

A Blue House official said all those who died in the disaster will be considered killed in action and proper arrangements will be made for their families.


By Ser Myo-ja [myoja@joongang.co.kr]

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김태영 국방부 장관은 16일 천안함 침몰 사건에 대해 “우리 정부와 군은 국가 안보 차원의 중대한 사태로 인식한다”고 말했다.

김 장관은 대국민 담화를 통해 이같이 밝히고, “앞으로 그(조사) 결과가 나오는 대로 한 점의 의혹이 없도록 명명백백하게 밝힐 것이며, 그에 따른 후속 조치도 명확하고 단호하게 강구해 나갈 것”이라고 강조했다.

김 장관의 이 발언은 천안함이 북한 공격에 의해 침몰됐음을 시사하는 것이어서 주목된다.

김 장관은 또 “정부와 군은 (실종된 승조원의) 고귀한 정신과 값진 희생을 결코 잊지 않을 것이며, 그들의 헌신이 명예로울 수 있도록 최고의 예우를 다할 것”이라 고 말했다. 이어 “군은 이번 일을 계기로 국가 안보 및 군사 대비태세의 미비점을 보완하고 미흡했던 초동 조치에 대해서도 철저히 조사해 군 기강을 재정비하는 등 군이 거듭나는 기회로 삼을 것”이라며 “이번 사건 처리와 관련해 감사원에 직무감사를 요청할 계획”이라고 덧붙였다. 


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