Go to contents

Resolute Action Needed for Cheonan Debacle

Posted March. 29, 2010 07:55,   


In a serious incident of national significance, the Korean naval vessel Cheonan sank Friday evening. How can a 1,200-ton naval corvette carrying 104 crew members sink in an instant after getting split into two pieces with the deafening sound of an explosion? Inevitably, emergency measures must be taken given the cause of the incident. The most urgent thing to do is to rescue the missing 46 servicemen who remain missing. At an emergency meeting with national security-related ministers, President Lee Myung-bak urged his administration to do their best “until the last minute” on the belief that the missing are still alive. The Korean people’s hearts are just as broken as those of the crew’s parents and relatives.

The missing seem to have taken a rest inside a cabin under the ship’s stern when half of the vessel went down. Experts say a naval vessel has compartments that can be sealed off in the event of an emergency, so those in the cabin can survive for some 60 hours. The most urgent task is to find out where and in what situation they were. Doing so requires swift search operations. The Navy conducted four operations to locate the bow and the stern yesterday, only to fail because of rapid currents and poor visibility.

The Cheonan debacle is the Korean Navy’s biggest disaster since February 1974, when a vessel with some 300 trainees on board sank due to bad weather. About 150 of the crew perished. Military officers and men always risk their lives in wartime or peacetime, but such a large-scale disaster should not recur.

President Lee stressed that the military should investigate the incident by not ruling out any possibility but also avoid making premature determinations of the cause. The public should also watch the investigation in a calm manner without being swayed by ungrounded rumors.

Experts have offered three possibilities for the explosion – a torpedo attack by North Korea or contact with a sea mine placed by either North Korea or South Korea; an explosion in the ship’s munitions and oil storage rooms; or collision with a rock. It is unlikely that a North Korean submersible vehicle or submarine infiltrated the South’s territorial waters more than 10 kilometers away from the Northern Limit Line to launch a torpedo. Nothing suggests the North’s responsibility or unusual activities. Yet speculation is rising that Pyongyang might have launched a torpedo attack via radar-cheating tactics. Many experts say an internal explosion is very unlikely because the ship was well equipped with a safety system. A collision with a rock is also seen as improbably because the crew was familiar with the route they were taking. Survivors’ accounts are very important to determine the situation at the time of the explosion.

If Pyongyang is found responsible for the sinking of the Cheonan, Seoul must take more stern and stronger retaliatory measures than it did in the three inter-Korean naval clashes off the west coast since 1999. This is a matter of national security. If an internal explosion or collision with a rock is determined as the cause, the South Korean military must be held responsible. A thorough investigation into the military’s operational command and technological operations would be required. No matter what the cause, this disaster is serious enough to raise questions over the Republic of Korea’s identity, the Navy’s honor, and its capability for performing operations. Seoul should quickly determine the cause of the incident and take follow-up measures accordingly.