Dozens Missing From Sunken South Korean Navy Vessel
March 27, 2010
Kurt Achin

South Korea is scrambling to locate at least 46 South Korean military personnel missing after a one of the South's naval patrol vessels sank in a tense maritime area disputed by North Korea.  Seoul is investigating what caused the incident, but holding off for now on blaming the North.

South Korean officials say rescuing sailors remains their top priority.  One hundred four South Korean navy personnel were on board the patrol ship in waters west of the Korean peninsula Friday night when it was apparently damaged by an explosion and sank.

South Korean President Lee Myung-bak called an emergency meeting of top security officials Saturday, for the second time in a 12-hour period.  South Korean authorities say they are investigating "all possibilities" as to why the ship went down, including the scenario that the ship was attacked by North Korea.

The incident occurred near South Korea's Baekryoung island, next to what is called the Northern Limit Line - a maritime border drawn by the United Nations at the signing of an armistice that paused the 1950s Korean War.

North Korea has challenged the legitimacy of the border, and the two sides have fought at least three naval skirmishes in the area in the past 11 years.

Still, South Korean officials are downplaying the notion the ship was attacked by North Korea - in part, because the incident occurred southwest of Baekryoung island, deep in South Korean waters.

Carl Baker, a Korean security specialist and director of Pacific Forum CSIS in Honolulu, agrees a North Korean role seems unlikely.

"You know, it looks to me like it was a naval accident, an unfortunate naval accident, that happened.  I mean, it just seems like it was an explosion on the ship.  And I'm just kind of skeptical about it being a North Korean attack or something," said Baker.

Baker says the timing of such an attack would be strange, given recent reports of a possible upcoming visit to China by North Korean leader Kim Jong Il and the possible resumption of talks aimed at ending North Korea's nuclear weapons programs.

"If it is... a North Korean attack, it would signal something kind of strange that isn't consistent with all the other news going on at this point," said Baker.

North Korea is also seeking to relieve the pressure international sanctions has put on its sputtering economy - in part, by asking South Korea for a renewal of economic joint projects.  Some analysts believe a military attack would contradict those efforts.
Reprinted with the permission of Voice of America
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