An external explosion most likely sank a South Korean navy ship that split apart three weeks ago, an investigator said yesterday, leaving open the possibility that a North Korean torpedo or mine may have caused the disaster.
The 1,088-tonne Cheonan split into two pieces after exploding on March 26 during a routine patrol near the tense maritime border with North Korea. Fifty-eight crew members were rescued and 38 bodies have been found, most of them on Thursday when the stern was raised from the water.
There has been some suspicion, but no confirmation, of North Korean involvement in the sinking. The disputed western sea border has been the scene of three past inter-Korean naval battles.
South Korean officials have said they will look into all possibilities, including that the ship might have been struck by a North Korean torpedo or a mine left over from the 1950 to 1953 Korean War. The conflict ended with an armistice, not a peace treaty, leaving the Koreas still technically at war.
North Korean officials have reportedly denied their country was involved in the blast.
“There is a high possibility of an external explosion rather than an internal explosion,” chief South Korean investigator Yoon Duk-yong told reporters yesterday.
He said further analysis and time are needed to determine the exact cause, after salvaging the ship’s other wreckage and collecting debris.
Yoon also said the explosion may have occurred near the ship or that something may have hit the ship.
Lee Hyun-yup, a marine engineering expert at Chungnam National University in South Korea, also said the ship was broken by an underwater explosion, which could be caused by either a torpedo or a floating mine.
To ascertain whether North Korea was involved, authorities would have to look at the shape of broken ship parts and recover splinters of a torpedo or a sea mine and determine whether the North had such weapons, Lee said, adding that it could take years to find the exact cause.
Meanwhile, Yang Moo-jin, a professor at Seoul’s University of North Korean Studies, said he doubted the North’s possible involvement, adding that Pyongyang was seeking cooperation with China while asking for direct talks with the US for eventual resumption of stalled disarmament talks.