South Korean navy ship sinks off North Korean coast

Friday, March 26, 2010

A South Korean naval vessel, the ROKS Cheonan, with around 100 crew members on board is reported to have sunk near the disputed maritime border with North Korea. While initial reports said the cause may have been a torpedo attack by North Korea, South Korean officials have since denied any military altercation.

The 1,200 tonne ship was reported to have begun sinking between 9:30 and 10:45 PM local time (1345 UTC) on Friday night near Baengnyeong Island. While no cause was confirmed by authorities, an explosion occurred in the rear of the ship and there was much speculation about the possibility of a North Korean torpedo attack. A spokesperson for the government, however, said that judgement on the cause was being withheld until an investigation was conducted, and South Korea's Joint Chiefs of Staff said that there was insufficient evidence to implicate North Korea. By the day after the incident, South Korean officials had said that North Korea was not involved, as there was no indication of North Korean military activity in the area the ship sank.

The Northern Limit Line shown in red.

The Yonhap news agency said that a South Korean ship had fired shots at another, unidentified, North Korean vessel, although whether the incident occurred before or after the vessel began sinking is unclear. A later report said that the target may have been merely a flock of birds.

According to the ship's captain, one of those who was rescued, there was "the sound of an explosion and the ship keeled to the right." The initial explosion caused the ship to lose power and communications, and the ship sank rapidly, with the rear underwater five minutes after the explosion.

A rescue operation was immediately undertaken by South Korea, with several of the involved vessels rescuing 58 people. The remaining 46 that were on board the ship are presently unaccounted for, and it is increasingly unlikely that any more survivors will be picked up. The South Korean government has convened an emergency meeting in response to the incident, and the military has activated an emergency task force.

The sea around the Korean peninsula has been the site of previous incidents between the two navies, including deadly battles in 1999 and 2002, and a smaller firefight last year.