President Lee Myung-bak offers his condolences Friday to family members of the late Han Joo-ho, the Navy warrant officer who died Tuesday after experiencing decompression sickness during an operation to rescue missing sailors of the sunken Cheonan, at a memorial service in Seongnam, Gyeonggi Province. / Korea Times
By Jung Sung-ki, Lee Tae-hoon
Defense Minister Kim Tae-young said Friday that the more-likely cause of the Cheonan's tragic sinking was a torpedo attack rather than an underwater mine.
"Both torpedoes and mines are possible causes of the sinking. But I believe that there is a higher chance that torpedoes were the cause," Kim said at a National Assembly session.
The minister, however, said the sonar operator of the ill-fated Cheonan did not detect any signs of torpedoes approaching at the time of the disaster that took place near the western sea border on March 26.
Kim downplayed the possibility of Pyongyang's involvement in the sinking, though he admitted that two North Korean submarines were spotted near the site from March 24 to 27.
"It is possible that they are linked to this incident, but the odds are low, given that they move slowly and were far from Baengnyeong Island," he said.
Minister Kim said the military initially presumed an unexplained explosion that sank the Cheonan was a provocative act of North Korea.
He said another frigate, the Sokcho, was promptly sent toward the sea border to prevent any hostile forces, possibly North Korean submarines, from escaping.
On Thursday, the defense ministry said the Sokcho fired some 130 rounds from its 76mm main gun shortly after the explosion at a flock of birds, assuming that they were possibly a fleeing North Korean vessel.
Kim also discounted the growing speculation over the structural integrity of the sunken warship, saying the Cheonan was not an old model, but an "above-average warship of the Navy" constructed in 1988.
Some pointed out that a fatigue fracture might have caused the tragedy, saying that recovered metal sections showed little damage, unlike that expected from a ship broken apart by an explosion.
Military divers resumed their search for 46 missing sailors from the sunken warship Friday - 58 have been rescued.
Search-and rescue efforts were suspended for two days due to stormy weather, causing hopes to fade for the missing.
Local media continued to speculate about what caused the 1,200-ton frigate to sink in waters about 1.8km off the island near the Northern Limit Line, the de facto sea border.
The ministry said Thursday that there was an explosion measuring as powerful as about 1.5 on the Richter scale at the site where the Cheonan sank, citing a report from a state geological survey institute.
A magnitude 1.5 earthquake would equal 180 kilograms of TNT, according to experts. Some believe such an explosion might have been caused by a torpedo attack or sea mine.
Military divers and ships were reinforced in the West Sea for rescue operations, ministry officials said.
The U.S. Navy's Harpers Ferry dock landing ship arrived in the area to help South Korean rescue efforts, ministry officials said.
‘기뢰보다 어뢰일 가능성 커’
김태영 국방장관은 금요일 해군 초계정 천안호 침몰 원인이 해저 기뢰라기보다 어뢰일 가능성이 더 크다고 밝혔다.
김장관은 국회에서 “어뢰와 기뢰 둘 다 침몰 원인으로 가능하지만 어뢰일 가능성이 더 큰 것으로 생각된다”고 말했다.
그러나 김장관은 침몰한 천안호의 음성탐지기가 사고 당시 어떤 징후도 감지하지 못했다고 밝혔다. 이 사고는 3월 26일 서해 북한 접경 해역 인근에서 발생했다.
김장관은 두 척의 북한 잠수정이 3월 24일과 27일 사이 사고 지점 인근에서 포착됐음을 인정했으나 북한이 이 침몰 사건에 연루될 가능성이 적은 것으로 여겼다.
그는 “ 그 두 척이 이 사건과 연관이 있을 수는 있지만 움직임이 매우 느리고 백령도에서 멀리 있었다는 것을 감안하면 확률은 낮다”고 말했다.
그는 또 침몰 원인은 앞으로 선체가 인양된 후에야 밝혀질 것 같다고 거듭 밝혔다.