Explosion sinks South Korean naval ship near disputed sea border with North

By Blaine Harden and June Lee
Saturday, March 27, 2010

TOKYO -- A South Korean naval ship sank early Saturday after an explosion tore a hole in its bottom near a disputed sea border with North Korea.

Rescuers pulled 58 crew members, including the captain, from the ship before it sank, but more than 40 others are missing. The Seoul government did not blame North Korea for the incident, which occurred in an area of the Yellow Sea where three North-South naval skirmishes have occurred in the past decade.

A spokeswoman for President Lee Myung-bak said the government is withholding judgment about the cause of the explosion, pending further investigation.

"Finding the truth [behind the incident] is important, but saving our soldiers is more important," Lee said, according to the Yonhap news agency.

The ship, a 1,200-ton frigate built in 1989, was on a routine patrol mission with 104 crew members on board. It began sinking near Baengnyeong Island, which is controlled by South Korea, after an explosion that occurred Friday evening.

Six naval ships, two coast guard vessels and rescue helicopters raced to the area. Lee convened an emergency meeting of security officials, and the military activated an emergency task force.

South Korean naval ships fired shots in the direction of North Korea toward unidentified objects that appeared on radar, according to the president's office, which added that the objects may have been a flock of birds. In Washington, the State Department said it was not aware of any North Korean involvement in the incident.

North Korea did not immediately comment on the explosion. But earlier Friday, its military had threatened possible strikes, including a nuclear attack, over reports that the United States and South Korea were making contingency plans for possible instability in the North. State-controlled media in Pyongyang frequently make such threats, and they are rarely regarded as serious.

North Korea has complained for decades about the North-South border in the Yellow Sea. Known as the Northern Limit Line, it was drawn by the U.S. military at the end of the Korean War in 1953.

The most recent of the three previous skirmishes in the area occurred in November. In those incidents, North Korea's aging naval ships have taken a pounding from South Korea's far more modern and better-armed vessels.

Past engagements or provocations occurred within a one-mile radius of the Northern Limit Line. But initial reports Friday suggested that damage to the South Korean frigate occurred when the vessel was farther south of the disputed zone.

Earlier clashes along the western sea border, even when they resulted in many casualties on the North Korean side, have not had a long-term destabilizing effect on North-South relations.

Lee, a special correspondent, reported from Seoul.

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