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(5th LD) S. Korea raises remaining half of sunken naval ship

All Headlines 20:46 April 24, 2010

(ATTN: RECASTS lead and throughout with details)
By Chang Jae-soon

SEOUL, April 24 (Yonhap) -- The badly damaged stem of a South Korean warship was being towed to its home port of Pyeongtaek Saturday for inspection, officials said, a month after the vessel mysteriously broke into two and sank near the border with North Korea.

The 58-meter-long wreckage was pulled out of the water earlier in the day and put on a giant barge for transportation to Pyeongtaek on the country's central west coast. The ship's broken stern was retrieved last week and brought to Pyeongtaek.

Earlier, salvage workers had found the body of one missing sailor trapped inside the wreckage. The victim was later identified as petty officer first class Park Sung-kyun, 20.

Forty sailors have been confirmed dead and six others were still listed as missing and presumed dead in the March 26 sinking of the 1,200-ton ship, the Cheonan. Fifty-eight were rescued before the ship sank.

Television footage showed the retrieved bow, which officials said weighs over 750 tons, moving slowly out of the disaster area in the Yellow Sea, towed by two tug boats. Officials expected it to arrive at Pyeongtaek 24 hours later.

Military officials who had briefly inspected the retrieved wreckage said there were signs on the bottom of the stem that the vessel was hit by an "an external explosion." The findings raised anew suspicion of a possible North Korean attack.

The officials said the images of the ship's two broken pieces, if put together, show that the vessel's central bottom is shaped like an inverted V, an indication that it was struck by a blow from outside.

Also gone were the ship's chimney and its radar mast that were on the top center of the ship.

"An explosion is believed to have occurred near where Park was found," a military official said, speaking on condition of anonymity. But the official declined to comment further on a possible cause.

North Korea's involvement was suspected from the beginning as the site of the sinking lies near where the navies of the two Koreas fought bloody gun battles in 1999, 2002 and most recently in November last year.

But the communist North has flatly rejected allegations of its involvement as fabrication.

In an effort to improve the transparency of the probe, South Korea has asked foreign countries to send experts to conduct joint research. Specialists from the United States and Australia have already been working in South Korea, and Sweden and Britain also pledged to send experts.

North Korea's involvement, if confirmed, would deal a serious blow to the already troubled relations between the two divided states and cast a pall over international efforts to reopen long-stalled disarmament talks on Pyongyang's nuclear arms programs.

South Korean President Lee Myung-bak has vowed to discover the cause of the sinking, respond sternly according to the investigation's results, and make South Korea's armed forces stronger, though he cautioned against rushing hastily to a conclusion without clear evidence.

On Friday, North Korea accused the South of trying to link the regime to the sinking and making the situation on the divided peninsula reach "such extreme phase that it is at the crossroads of a war or peace."

U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton warned the North against any provocations.

"I hope that there is no talk of war, there is no action or miscalculation that could provoke a response that might lead to conflict," Clinton said at a NATO foreign ministers' meeting in Tallinn, Estonia, Friday. "That's not in anyone's interest."

In New York, the U.S. representative for North Korea policy, Stephen Bosworth, said he is still optimistic on the reopening of the North Korea nuclear talks despite the ship sinking.

"As we look ahead today, we of course face a set of uncertainties in the short-term as we await the results of the investigation of the sinking of the South Korean naval vessel," Bosworth told a seminar in New York.

"But looking beyond that I think that there is reason to believe that multilateral engagement remains the essential condition for making progress on greater stability, denuclearization, peace and prosperity on the Korean peninsula," he said.

jschang@yna.co.kr
(END)

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