Hopes Fading for Missing S. Korean Sailors
NK Mine Suspected in Navy Ship Disaster
By Jung Sung-ki
Defense Minister Kim Tae-young cautiously raised the possibility Monday that the ill-fated frigate Cheonan may have hit a mine laid by North Korea.
His remark drew attention as Cheong Wa Dae and defense officials had previously sought to downplay the North’s possible involvement in the deadly ship wreck Friday in which 46 South Korean sailors remain “missing in action.”
Answering questions at the National Assembly on the cause of the incident, Kim said, “North Korean mines may have floated into our territorial waters.”
However, he refused to comment on whether the mines had been placed by the North intentionally or had drifted into South Korean waters.
Earlier in the day, rescue workers confirmed the location of the stern of the downed ship, which was split in two after an unexplained explosion, the defense ministry said.
About 100 South Korean and U.S. divers began operations and succeeded in reaching the stern, which was about 50 meters from where the ship went down, and about 40 meters underwater, ministry spokesman Won Tae-jae told reporters.
The divers tied a loop of rope around its deck, Won said.
They tapped on the outside of the hull but failed to hear any sound inside, he said.
Kim ruled out the possibility of a blast caused by South Korean mines, and also played down the possibility of a torpedo attack.
North Korea bought about 4,000 sea mines from the former Soviet Union during the 1950-53 Korean War and was believed to have laid about 3,000 of them both in eastern and western waters off the Korean Peninsula, Kim noted.
“Almost all mines were removed, but not 100 percent,” he said. “A North Korean mine was found in South Korean waters in 1984 and another was removed in 1995.”
Both Koreas deployed floating and submerged mines near the Northern Limit Line (NLL), the de facto sea border, after the Korean War ended in a truce, not a peace treaty.
Military experts said an acoustic mine might have been triggered by the Cheonan’s propellers. Acoustic mines are activated by the noise of a passing ship’s screws.
The location of the wreckage came two days after search-and-rescue (SAR) efforts began near the western sea border with North Korea.
Most of the 46 missing sailors are believed to have been in the stern when the 1,200-ton ship was destroyed and sank 1.8 kilometers southwest of Baengnyeong Island near the NLL.
A Navy salvage team confirmed the location of the bow of the vessel, which was carrying crew of 104, Sunday. Fifty-eight sailors, including the captain, were rescued from one of the country’s worst sea disasters.
It is possible that some missing sailors could have survived in air-pockets inside the ship, although the water in the West Sea is about 4 degrees Celsius.
“We are expecting to see some positive results as the rest of the body of the ship has been found,” Rear Adm. Lee Ki-shik at the Joint Chiefs of Staff told reporters. “We’ll be sending down underwater cameras and hope that all sailors are still alive.”
President Lee Myung-bak called for speeding up the rescue operation.
“We should use all the manpower and equipment available to rescue the sailors as fast as possible,” Lee was quoted by his spokeswoman Kim Eun-hye as saying, after receiving an emergency briefing from his top aides.
The President stressed rescuers “should not give up hope for more survivors.”
Minister Kim said, however, he believes the possibility of survivors is low given the amount of time that has passed since the accident occurred.
Full-fledged rescue operations by civilian divers as well as South Korean and U.S. salvage specialists are underway, the minister said.
About 20 South Korean vessels, including the 3,000-ton Gwangyang rescue ship and two minesweepers, have been conducting efforts to reach possible survivors.
The Japan-based U.S. 7th Fleet dispatched a 3,000-ton rescue ship to the site, and 15 U.S. divers are supporting the operation, Kim said.
The cause of the explosion on the ship remains unclear.
Several possibilities have been suggested: an accidental onboard explosion, or a blast caused by hitting rocks or sea mines planted either by North or South Korea.
With regard to North Korean involvement, U.S. Forces Korea Commander Gen. Walter Sharp also said in a statement that his command didn’t detect any indication that this was the case.
국방장관 `천안함 침몰 북 개입 가능성'
김태영 국방장관은 29일 침몰한 초계함 천안호가 북한이 매설한 해상 기뢰와 충돌했을 가능성을 조심스럽게 제기했다.
김장관은 국회에서 열린 국방위원회 회의에서 이 같이 언급했다.
김장관은 "북측의 기뢰가 우리 수역에 떠내려왔을 수도 있다"고 말했다. 그러나 그는 북한이 의도적으로 매설했는지 우리측 수역으로 떠내려왔는지에 대한 언급은 회피했다.
김장관은 우리측 기뢰로 촉발된 폭발 가능성은 부인했으며 어뢰 공격의 가능성 역시 적다고 밝혔다.
김장관은 북한은 한국전 당시 소련으로부터 4,000여기의 기뢰를 도입해 이 중 3,000여기를 한반도 동서 해역에 매설해 놓은 것으로 알려졌다고 말했다.
그는 "거의 모두가 제거되었지만 100퍼센트는 아니다"며 "1984년 우리측 수역에서 북한 기뢰 하나가 발견됐으며 1995년 또 1기가 제거되었다"고 밝혔다.
구조대는 지난 금요일 원인 미상의 폭발로 두 동강 난 것으로 추정된 초계함 천안호 선미의 위치를 확인했다.
국방부는 29일 서해상 북한과의 접경 인근 수역에서 수색 및 구조 작전을 벌인지 이틀 만에 선미의 위치를 알아냈다고 밝혔다.
실종된 46명 거의 모두가 이 1,200톤 급 선박의 후미에 있었던 것으로 추정됐다. 이 함정은 북방한계선 인근 백령도 남서쪽 1.8킬로미터 지점에서 침몰했다.
전날 해군 해난구조대는 이 함정의 선수 위치를 확인했었다. 104명의 승조원 중 함장을 포함 58명이 구조됐으나, 그 외 인원은 `작전중 행방불명' 상태다. 이는 한국 해군 최악의 해난 사건 중 하나로 기록됐다.
서해 수온이 섭씨 4도 정도여서 함정내 공기로 일부 실종 수병들이 살아 있을 가능성은 있다.
이날 이에 앞서 100여명의 한, 미 잠수병들이 수색작전을 시작, 이 배의 선미까지 성공적으로 도달했다. 이 선체 후미는 배가 가라앉은 지점에서 50여 미터 떨어진 수심 40여 미터에 있었다.
군당국자들은 잠수병들이 선미 갑판 주위에 로프를 매어 표시해두었다고 밝혔다.
합동참모부 정보작전처장 이기식 준장은 "선체 모두가 발견되면 긍정적인 결과가 기대된다"며 "수중 카메라를 내려 보낼 계획이며 전 수병이 살아있기를 바란다"고 밝혔다.
이명박 대통령은 구조작전에 속도를 내라고 촉구했다.