Military insiders believe there is mounting evidence that the Navy corvette Cheonan was hit by a North Korean torpedo before it broke in two and sank in waters near the de facto inter-Korean border. But the Defense Ministry and military authorities insist on the importance of establishing the exact cause of the shipwreck before any conclusions are announced.
A senior military officer on Thursday said, "There is a 60 to 70 percent chance that the ship was hit" by a North Korean torpedo. But he added the question remains whether any evidence was left behind.
He based his speculation on indications that the ship was sunk by an external explosion and that a torpedo was in his view a more likely cause than an old mine from the days of the Korean War, a possibility that has also been floated.
When he visited Baeknyeong Island near the scene of the sinking on Tuesday, President Lee Myung-bak asked Chief of Naval Operations Adm. Kim Sung-chan whether there would be identifiable traces left behind in a mine explosion, and Kim said it is hard to tell but there is also the possibility of a torpedo attack. Kim added it is fairly certain that the ship's ammunition storage did not blow up.
At a recent session of the National Assembly Defense Committee, Defense Minister Kim Tae-young said North Korea has semi-submersibles that can carry two torpedoes and can fire them from a certain distance."
Right after the shipwreck, the Second Navy Fleet Command elevated the maritime alert to the highest level, Grade A, and sent the Navy vessel Sokcho near the Northern Limit Line, the de facto maritime border.
When an unidentified object appeared on the radar screen around 10:55 p.m. on March 26, the Sokcho believed it to be a North Korean semi-submersible and fired about 130 shells from 76 mm guns.
But other experts say that the North has no reason to launch such a reckless provocation with the approach of its leader Kim Jong-il's imminent visit to China and the resumption of the six-party nuclear talks.
But a retired chief of naval operations said, "In 2002 when the World Cup reached its climax, the North unexpectedly provoked the second battle of Yeonpyeong in the West Sea. The North has done many things that are inexplicable by common sense."