March 30, 2010 11:27
Defense Minister Kim Tae-young on Monday suggested that the 1,200-ton corvette Cheonan may have hit an old North Korean mine before it sank in waters near the de facto maritime border in the West Sea on Friday night.
"Neither the government nor the Defense Ministry has said that there is no possibility of North Korean involvement," Kim told the National Assembly's Defense Committee. "We need to reach a conclusion after looking at all possibilities."
Kim said one of them is that an old North Korean sea mine drifted into the area. "North Korea brought in about 4,000 sea mines from the Soviet Union during the Korean War and placed about 3,000 of them in the West Sea and the East Sea. We searched for and removed them in 1959 and 1984, but it would have been impossible to retrieve all of them."
He said the South Korean Navy placed no mines in the West Sea although some depth charges were modified and placed there in the past, "but they were all retrieved in 2008." The minister added there would be no way to prevent a mine from being planted by other means.
An external explosion looks more likely than an internal accident since, according to Kim, rescued sailors suffered no burns but spinal trauma associated with an external shock.
But Kim said there were no signs of a torpedo attack ahead of the explosion according to accounts of a rescued sailor who handled the ship's radar. "North Korean semi-submersible vessels can carry two torpedoes and could launch attacks. We are investigating that possibility."
Search and salvage teams on Monday night found the stern of the ship, but unquiet, murky waters did not allow them to investigate the hull and establish whether torn metal was blown inward or outward in the explosion.
The minister ruled out that the corvette hit a reef. "Before it sank, the Cheonan navigated through those waters around 15 times, while the depth of 20 m there is enough for the vessel to maneuver freely," he said.
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