The South Korean president ordered the military on alert yesterday for any moves by North Korea after the defense minister said last week’s explosion that sank a South Korean ship may have been caused by a North Korean mine.
The blast ripped the 1,200 tonne ship apart on Friday night during a routine patrol near Baengnyeong Island near the tense maritime border west of the Korean Peninsula. Fifty-eight crew members, including the captain, were plucked to safety; 46 are missing, with dim prospects for their survival.
Divers geared up to break into the ship yesterday, South Korean Rear Admiral Lee Ki-sik of the Joint Chiefs of Staff told reporters. He said there were no signs of life inside.
South Korean President Lee Myung-bak flew to area in the Yellow Sea where the ship went down. He reviewed the search operations, met with marines stationed on the western island and consoled family members watching the rescue mission, the presidential Blue House said. Baengnyeong is just 13km from and within sight of a North Korean military base where surface-to-ship guided missiles and artillery are heavily deployed, presidential spokesman Park Sun-kyoo said.
Earlier yesterday, Lee Myung-bak ordered his military to stay alert for any moves by the North.
“Since the sinking took place at the front line, the military should thoroughly prepare for any move by North Korea,” the spokesman quoted Lee Myung-bak as telling his Cabinet. “I want the military to maintain its readiness.”
Military officials say the exact cause of the explosion remains unclear, and US and South Korean officials said there was no evidence of North Korean involvement.
However, South Korean Defense Minister Kim Tae-young told lawmakers on Monday that a floating mine dispatched from North Korea was one of several scenarios for the disaster.
“North Korea may have intentionally floated underwater mines to inflict damage on us,” Kim said.
North Korean suicide squads known as “human torpedoes” may be behind the explosion, the Chosun Ilbo newspaper said in a report yesterday, citing unidentified senior defectors from the North.
Suicide squads operate semi-submersible vessels equipped to carry two bombers and either two torpedoes or floating mines, the paper said, citing a North Korean sailor-turned-defector.
“Acoustic mines” carried by small submarines crawling along at speeds of less than 2kph, too slow to register on South Korean sonar radars, are considered particularly effective, the paper cited another defector who served in North Korean intelligence as saying.
South Korean Defense Ministry spokesman Won Tae-jae said no possibility was being ruled out and said the ship must be salvaged before any cause is confirmed.
“Everyone’s imagination has been running wild, posing all sorts of possibilities,” he said. “But we can’t say yes or no to any of them.”
Officials have also said an internal malfunction may be to blame.
Also yesterday, a navy diver died during a mission to rescue sailors trapped inside the sunken warship, the military said.
The diver had been receiving treatment after lapsing into unconsciousness while working at the scene of the wreck, a spokesman for the Joint Chiefs of Staff said.
He was taken to the US salvage ship Salvor, which is assisting in the rescue, but it was not clear where he eventually died.