Published on
The New York Times

S. Korean Navy Ship Sinking in Disputed Waters; N. Korean Torpedo?

Choe Sang-Hun

This undated picture shows South Korea's Cheonan naval ship in South Korea, Friday, March 26, 2010. South Korea's military scrambled Cheonan naval vessels to the western waters near the disputed maritime border with North Korea late Friday after an explosion ripped a hole in the bottom of a military ship, officials and news reports said. (AP Photo/ Yonhap)

SEOUL — A South Korean navy patrol ship sank near the disputed western
sea border with North
early Saturday after suffering damage to its hull, South
’s military said.

The incident immediately raised suspicions about the possible
involvement of North Korea, whose navy has skirmished for years with
South Korean ships in the waters off the Korean peninsula. But South
Korean officials said it was not clear whether the ship had been
attacked by the North.

The South Korean president, Lee
, ordered an emergency meeting of security-related cabinet
ministers at an underground bunker at his office, the Blue House in
Seoul, and ordered the military to focus on rescue efforts, according to
South Korean news reports.

By early Saturday morning in Korea, 58 of the ship’s 104 crew members
had been rescued, Lee Ki-shik, a navy commodore, said during a news
briefing. More navy ships were rushing to the scene to assist in the
rescue efforts.

The commodore did confirm reports that another South Korean ship had
fired warning shots around the time the first ship was damaged after
detecting an unidentified object on the radar, but he cautioned that the
object could have been a flock of birds.

“Many of the 104 sailors on the ship jumped into the sea, and there is a
fear that there may be some human causalities,” South Korea’s Yonhap
news agency reported.

Yonhap reported that officials were investigating reports that a torpedo
had sunk the South Korean patrol ship, but that report could not be
independently confirmed.

“All we can say for now is that one of our patrol ships is sinking after
it suffered a rupture in its bottom created by an unidentified cause,”
said a spokesman at the South Korean Office of Joint
Chiefs of Staff
. He spoke on condition of anonymity until South
Korea made a formal announcement.

The ship was sinking in the Yellow Sea near Byeongryeong, a South Korean
island about eight miles from the North Korean coast and 120 miles from
the mainland South.

The waters along the disputed western sea between the two Koreas make up
the most volatile section of the border between North and South Korea,
and were the site of bloody naval skirmishes in 1999 and 2002.

North Korea rejects a sea border unilaterally drawn by the United
at the end of the 1950-53 Korean War and defended by the
South Koreans. It has repeatedly warned of naval clashes there.

In November, naval patrol boats from the North and South exchanged fire
after a North Korean boat crossed that sea border, called the
northern-limit line. The North Korean patrol boat was damaged in the
skirmish and retreated after the skirmish.

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