(ATTN: UPDATES minister's comments in paras 7-9)
By Shin Hae-in
SEOUL, March 27 (Yonhap) -- Military rescuers scoured choppy seas Saturday to search for dozens of sailors missing when their warship sank after a mysterious explosion in its hull, as Navy specialists prepared to dive to reach the craft to determine the cause of the disaster, officials said.
A 1,200-ton South Korean Navy corvette with 104 sailors on board went down late Friday evening near the Yellow Sea border with North Korea, the scene of three bloody skirmishes between the navies of the two countries in November last year, 1999 and 2002.
Military officials said a total of 58 sailors have so far been rescued, with 46 others still unaccounted for and rescue operations delayed due to bad weather.
North Korea's possible involvement was initially suspected, but Seoul government officials said it was premature to draw any conclusions.
"It is hard to say for sure now, but chances appear to be slim that North Korea was related," a senior official said, speaking on the condition of anonymity. "If North Korea's attack really caused the sinking, it means there is a serious loophole in our defense system."
Navy divers had planned to go underwater to search the sunken craft Cheonan which officials said is protruding from the shallow waters about 24 meters deep, but the effort was hampered by inclement weather.
Defense Minister Kim Tae-young said after visiting the disaster site that the government is "yet to track down the exact cause behind the tragedy."
"The investigation hasn't been easy due to strong currents. I could see the difficulties there. We have 40 minutes or so for the divers to stay in the waters each day," Kim told reporters.
"Making predictions is meaningless in this situation, I believe. We are making the utmost effort to find anyone. Please bear with us."
The sunken vessel, known to be 88 meters long and 10 meters wide, was put into service in 1989, according to Navy officials.
President Lee Myung-bak re-convened a security meeting later Saturday after several hours of break to assess the latest developments. All South Korean government officials were put on standby.
President Lee ordered a "quick and thorough" investigation with "all possibilities" in mind, the presidential office Cheong Wa Dae spokeswoman Kim Eun-hye told reporters.
"The military should make all-out efforts to rescue as many survivors as possible," the spokesman quoted the president as saying as he presided over the security meeting.
The Navy vessel, armed with missiles and torpedoes, went down well inside South Korean waters, about 1.8 kilometers from South Korea's northernmost island of Baengnyeong, a fact that may preclude North Korean involvement.
Quoting reports from the crew of the sunken ship, defense officials said an unidentified explosion punched a hole near the screw, forcing the craft to take on water.
On Saturday, multiple officials told Yonhap News Agency that chances of North Korea's involvement appear slim. They cited the relatively long distance between the maritime border and the scene of the incident.
The incident took place at a sensitive time when South Korea, along with the U.S. and three other regional players, are stepping up efforts to lure North Korea back to six-party nuclear disarmament talks that have been stalled since late 2008. The other countries involved are China, Japan and Russia.
President Lee instructed his government to update the other members of the six-way talks on the situation
North Korea has remained silent on the incident, with its military showing no unusual moves, according to South Korean defense officials.
Cross-border traffic between the two Koreas remains normal, with seven South Korean company officials visiting a mountain resort in the communist nation as scheduled, according to the Unification Ministry.
"We are detecting no unusual movement from North Korea," Joint Chiefs of Staff spokesman Park said. Another JCS officer, Lee Ki-shik, said the military is "very cautious about pointing fingers at North Korea or any other causes at the moment."
In Washington, the State Department said it has no evidence of North Korea's involvement.
"Let's not jump to conclusions here," State Department spokesman Philip Crowley said Friday, responding to a question about any North Korean involvement. "I'm not aware of any evidence to that effect. But I think the authoritative source here would be the South Korean government."
Military officials were narrowing down the possibilities to the vessel's collision with a rock, a torpedo attack from outside forces, including North Korea, or an internal explosion due to the gunpowder and explosives the ship was carrying.
The Navy plans to salvage the sunken vessel for investigation to determine what caused the incident, a long process that may take at least 20 days, officials said. The ship, first deployed in 1989, was equipped with missiles and torpedoes, according to officials.
The incident comes amid heightened tension between the two Koreas, which technically remain in a state of conflict since the 1950-1953 Korean War ended in a truce, not a peace treaty. North Korea has said in recent weeks it is bolstering its defense in response to joint South Korean-U.S. military drills that were held this month.
North Korea does not recognize the western sea border, drawn by the United Nations at the end of the Korean War, and claims that it should be redrawn further south.
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