Seoul, South Korea Word that a South Korean naval ship sank in the tense waters around the disputed maritime border with communist North Korea set off panic: The president convened an emergency meeting and the military dispatched a fleet of ships.
Five hours later, 58 sailors had been pulled to safety but some 46 others were missing, reports said. There was no indication early today that North Korea was to blame for the ship’s demise, but troops kept a vigilant watch.
Seoul’s panic attack — hours after North Korea’s military threatened “unpredictable strikes” against the U.S. and South Korea — highlighted the fragility of peace on the divided Korean peninsula.
The two Koreas remain locked in a state of war because their three-year conflict ended in a truce, not a peace treaty, in 1953.
Since then, the two Koreas have fought three bloody skirmishes in the Yellow Sea waters. And in January, North Korea fired about 30 artillery rounds not far from Baeknyeong; the South Korean military fired 100 warning shots in response.
The 1,200-ton “Cheonan” was on a routine patrolling mission near South Korea’s Baeknyeong Island on Friday night with 104 crew members on board when the ship began taking on water, Rear Adm. Lee Ki-sik of the Joint Chiefs of Staff told reporters.
Unidentified military officials told South Korea’s Yonhap news agency that an explosion tore a hole into the rear hull, shutting off the engine, wiping out the power and quickly taking the ship down. A number of crew members jumped into the water, Yonhap said.
Six naval ships and two coast guard vessels, as well as helicopters and ambulances, rushed to save the crew, Yonhap and military officials said. Troops scanned the skies for an attack, at one point firing shots at what officials later speculated was a flock of birds.
President Lee Myung-bak, meanwhile, convened a late-night emergency meeting with his defense minister and other top military officials. After three hours, and no conclusion about what caused the ship to sink, they agreed to meet again today, presidential spokesman Lee Dong-kwan said.
President Lee ordered the military to focus on the rescue operation, he said.