Posted : 2010-04-01 19:35
Updated : 2010-04-01 19:35

Military Under Fire

Questions Grow Over Crisis Management Capability

It is hard to know exactly what happened to the Navy frigate that sank after a mysterious explosion near the West Sea border with North Korea on March 26. The only known thing is that the 1,200-ton ship split in half and submerged after the powerful blast with 46 of the 104 sailors aboard the ill-fated vessel still unaccounted for. Delayed search and rescue operations due to bad weather and rapid currents are only ebbing away the hope for the survival of the missing sailors.

Against this backdrop, people cannot but call into question the nation's crisis management capability. Such a naval disaster might occur at anytime. That's why it is necessary to take preventive measures. But once an emergency situation erupts, the most importance thing is to deal with it quickly and appropriately to minimize the damage arising from the unpredictable consequences. But the latest incident shows that the military and the government have failed to put its emergency handling manual into operation. Critics are not even sure if there is any effective controlling system.

More worrisome is that the authorities' attempt to tightly control all the information regarding the shipwreck is only fomenting public distrust and misgivings about the cause of the tragedy. The government is also giving the impression that it is trying to hide details about what went wrong with the Cheonan. Some families of the missing sailors and military watchers even claim that the Lee Myung-bak administration is distorting or manipulating facts about the mishap in a bid to shirk its accountability.

We just hope that such allegations will prove to be groundless, urging the authorities to do their best to get to the bottom of the incident and show its ability to contain fallout on the nation's defense postures and the daily lives of the people. Failing to do so would only cause South Koreans to cast a suspicious eye on the government and the military. President Lee has already instructed his ministers to disclose everything about the sinking of the ship in a clear and transparent manner, leaving no doubt whatsoever.

However, it appears that Lee has only paid lip service, or that his ministers have not paid heed to what he said. Military officials should immediately make a clear answer about a series of questions about one of the nation's worst naval disasters. The first question is why they changed the time of the explosion three times after announcing that it was 9:45 p.m. on March 26. Later, they said it took place 9:30 p.m., then 9:25 p.m. and finally 9:22 p.m. But the maritime police claimed that the blast was reported at 9:15 p.m.

The second question is why the vessel was sailing in the shallow waters, only 1.8 kilometers off Baengnyeong Island. It was unusual for the large frigate to be so close to the island. What was her mission?

The third question is why another patrol ship, the Sokcho, was operating near the Cheonan at the time of the incident. The Sokcho did not immediately come to the rescue of the sinking ship. Instead, she fired shots at strange flying objects in the sky, which were later confirmed to be migrant birds by the military radar.

Things could have been much different if the warship had taken timely action to save sailors from the wreckage. Regrettably, however, the sailors had to wait for a maritime police ship to arrive to rescue them, due to the inaction of the Sokcho. Was there a more important task for her to do than to conduct a rescue operation? Consequently, the military cannot avoid criticism for taking belated action at the early stages.

It was also regrettable that the military wasted time in locating the sunken ship, especially her stern that was reportedly carrying more than 30 sailors inside. It took almost three days to find the stern with the help of a fisherman who spotted it with his sonar fish detector. Now, it is almost impossible to hope for the survival of the sailors.

Defense Minister Kim Tae-young is also being slammed for making incoherent remarks about the probable cause of the explosion. He first seemed to rule out an external attack. But as time went by, he began to hint at North Korean involvement, opening a chance of a mine blowing up the ship. What's certain for now is that the government and the military are poor at search and rescue operations with a dilapidated crisis management system. The minister and his superiors should take all the responsibility for their failure to properly handle the incident.
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