The mystery of what caused a South Korean warship to sink in disputed waters may not be solved for days, with rescuers still hunting for 46 missing sailors and a recovery crane slowly being carried to the site.
In the meantime, the political pressure will remain high on the South Korean government, which has been unable to offer a convincing explanation for the explosion that broke up within minutes late Friday night the 1,200-ton ship, the Cheonan.
South Korean officials, while careful not to point directly at North Korea, allowed speculation regarding its culpability to rage, speaking volumes about South Korea’s current state of uneasiness with the North.
“The government or our defense ministry has never said it ruled out the possibility of North Korean involvement,” Kim Tae-young, defense minister of South Korea, said Monday during a grilling in parliament.
Asked about mines, Kim said it was “possible” that the Cheonan was hit by one of thousands of mines North Korea deployed near its coast during the Korean War, from 1950 to 1953. He also kept open the possibility that a North Korean submarine might have launched a torpedo, an initial focus of suspicion. North Korea has used difficult-to-detect submersibles to insert spies into the South.
Other theories mentioned at parliament and in the domestic media included an on-board saboteur and something exploding inside the warship, which reportedly carried torpedoes, depth charges, missiles and other weaponry.
The two Koreas remain technically at war, since the Korean War ended only in a truce. But relations, relatively warm for years, have grown ever more tendentious with the North’s confrontational stance on its nuclear weapons program and the South’s election of President Lee Myung-bak, who took office in 2008 with a hard line against the North.
The fragility of peace on the divided Korean Peninsula is most evident along the disputed western maritime border in the Yellow Sea, where the two navies fought skirmishes in 1999 and 2002, and briefly exchanged fire again last November. North Korea has repeatedly warned of a “clash” and “retaliation” in these waters.
Fifty-eight sailors were rescued in the hours after the explosion, but none have been found since, alive or dead.
Any navy crewmen who initially survived and managed to seal themselves inside watertight cabins would most likely have run out of air by Monday night.