Mines could have caused S. Korean warship's sinking: U.S. experts
By Hwang Doo-hyong
WASHINGTON, March 27 (Yonhap) -- Sea mines might have caused the tragic sinking of a South Korean naval ship, U.S. experts said Saturday, dismissing concerns over possible North Korean involvement.
"I doubt that North Korea was involved in the incident," John Feffer, co-director of the Foreign Policy in Focus program at the Institute for Policy Studies, said. "It didn't seem to involve any artillery fire from the North."
The 1,200-ton "Cheonan" sank Friday night (Seoul time) after a mysterious explosion that South Korean witnesses and military officials say split the vessel in two. Only 58 of the 104 crew aboard were rescued. The others are still missing.
Both Seoul and Washington have said they have yet to find any evidence of North Korea's involvement, although South Korean officials would not completely rule out the possibility.
The boat sank near the maritime border with North Korea in the Yellow Sea, the scene of bloody naval skirmishes on a total of three occasions in 1999, 2002 and 2009.
Feffer disagreed with the assumption that North Korea attacked the South Korean naval vessel, noting this incident is different from the previous clashes that involved fishing boats of the two Koreas crossing their sea border.
"There have been naval clashes between North and South in the past, but these have usually involved rising tensions, warnings, fishing boats crossing the NLL," he said. "But this was, as far as we know, a surprise. And there was no larger reason why the North might engage in such a surprise attack."
North Korea has long defied the Northern Limit Line (NLL), the de-facto sea border drawn by the U.S.-lec United Nations Command after the 1950-1953 Korean War, demanding the line be redrawn further south.
The latest clash in November last year left a North Korean patrol boat in flames, one North Korean soldier dead and several others injured. There were no South Korean casualties.
Bruce Klingner, senior research fellow at the Heritage Foundation, described the unexplained explosion as "an oddity in an era of sophisticated ships and communication," raising a sea mine as a possible cause.
"Although initial media reports suggested a North Korean torpedo as the cause, that interpretation now appears to be the result of overeager reporters," he said. "Seoul is now downplaying the likelihood of North Korean involvement in the explosion and sinking. A survivor of the sinking insists there was no onboard explosion, leading to speculation the cause was a naval mine, either South Korean or one that had drifted from the North."
Klingner, however, would not dismiss the chance of North Korea's involvement, pending the outcome of the ongoing investigations.
"Concerns over North Korean involvement remain, however, since the sinking occurred near the disputed maritime border which was the site of clashes in 1999, 2002 and 2009," he said.
"Pyongyang's return to more belligerent rhetoric was cited as cause for concern by the U.S. Pacific Command on the day before the sinking," he added.
North Korea on Friday warned of a nuclear war, accusing South Korea and the U.S. of preparing for any contingency in the reclusive communist state, which has been under international sanctions for its nuclear and missile tests since early last year.
Pyongyang has since boycotted six-party talks on its nuclear dismantlement, and recently called for an end to the sanctions and for a peace treaty to replace the armistice that ended the Korean War as preconditions for its return to the talks. Washington insists Pyongyang come back to the nuclear talks first.
Apparently feeling the pinch from the sanctions, North Korean leader Kim Jong-il is reportedly preparing for a rare visit to Beijing soon, his fifth trip since 2000, to discuss reopening of the multilateral nuclear talks, economic aid and Chinese support for his effort to install his youngest son, Jong-un, as his heir. The senior Kim is believed to have suffered a stroke in 2008.
Some analysts in South Korea initially speculated Pyongyang's disgruntled military leadership might have attacked the South Korean vessel to escalate tension.
"If the South Korean investigation does point the finger at Pyongyang, President Lee Myung-bak is less likely to overlook the incident than either of his more accommodating predecessors, Kim Dae-jung and Roh Moo-hyun," Klingner said.
Conservative South Korean President Lee has been tough with the communist neighbor since taking office in 2008, suspending food and fertilizer aid while citing the lack of progress on the six-party talks on North Korea's denuclearization.