Wed, Apr 14, 2010 - Page 5 News List

Australians to join S Korean sinking probe

AFP , SEOUL

Three Australian experts were to arrive yesterday to join an international investigation into the mystery sinking of a South Korean warship near the North Korean border, the defense ministry said.

Seven US and 123 South Korean experts are already probing the March 26 blast that broke a 1,200-tonne corvette in two with the loss of 46 lives.

Britain and Sweden have also been asked to join the probe.

A huge naval crane on Monday moved the submerged stern to shallower water in the Yellow Sea to make it easier eventually to hoist the wreckage onto a barge. However, the salvage was suspended yesterday due to high winds and waves.

Workers also halted a separate search for any seabed debris that could indicate the cause of the explosion.

Survivors have said a big external blast tore the ship apart, discounting theories that an explosion on board or a grounding sank the vessel.

The area around the disputed border was the scene of deadly naval clashes between North Korea and South Korea in 1999 and 2002 and of a firefight in November last year.

Seoul’s defense minister has raised the possibility that a mine or torpedo may have sunk the Cheonan.

South Korean President Lee Myung-bak cautioned against speculation before the end of the probe — which could take weeks even after the wreckage has been raised and moved by barge to a naval base for examination.

Lee has called for “a very objective investigation” whose findings cannot be disputed, and promised “stern measures” against whoever was to blame.

The sinking may also have sunk hopes for an early resumption of six-party talks on North Korea’s nuclear disarmament, some analysts said.

“This incident is poisoning the atmosphere for resuming the six-party talks” grouping the two Koreas, China, Japan, Russia and the US, Yoo Ho-yeol of Korea University said.

“The likelihood of North Korea’s involvement seems to be growing day by day and an increase in tension between the two Koreas appears inevitable,” he said.

He and other analysts said, however, that even before the sinking, the North did not appear keen to resume the nuclear dialogue that it quit a year ago.

As preconditions for returning, the North wants a US commitment to discuss a permanent peace treaty and the lifting of UN sanctions. Washington says it must first return to the nuclear forum and show seriousness about negotiating.

Yoo said that if the North’s involvement in the attack were eventually proved, the South would likely seek new UN sanctions. A retaliatory military strike would not be an option, he said.

Not everyone is convinced an explosion sank the corvette.

“I think it would be too far fetched to assume a torpedo attack by the North, judging from its weapons capability,” said Baek Seung-joo of the Korea Institute for Defense Analyses. “I think it might rather have been related to some structural defects in the warship.”

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