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(4th LD) 'Non-contact explosion' most likely cause of ship sinking: official

All Headlines 22:43 April 25, 2010

(ATTN: UPDATES with arrival of forward part of severed ship in naval base in para 4)

SEOUL, April 25 (Yonhap) -- A team of military and civilian investigators said Sunday that a "non-contact external explosion," rather than a direct hit, was the most likely cause of the mysterious sinking of a South Korean warship last month.

Yoon Duk-yong, co-chairman of the joint investigation team, said the sinking of the Cheonan naval patrol ship near the western sea border with North Korea on March 26 was most likely caused by a non-contact explosion under the warship, judging from initial inspections of the wreckage.

"The possibility of an underwater non-contact explosion is bigger than that of an underwater contact explosion, considering the shape of the severed surfaces and conditions," said Yoon in a news conference at the defense ministry.

The Cheonan broke in half and sank on the night of March 26 after an unexplained blast near the Yellow Sea border with North Korea that killed 46 of its 104 crew members. The wreckage of both its stern and bow has been salvaged from the sea, with the forward part of the severed ship arriving at 2nd fleet headquarters in Pyeongtaek at around 9 p.m. on a barge with the funnel. After all munitions have been removed and 100,000 liters of fuel pumped out, it will be subject to detailed inspections along with the after section of the ship at a naval repair yard.

"The possibility of an internal explosion, fatigue fracture or collision with a reef is zero. The joint investigation team will try to come up with the final result as soon as possible after completing a closer investigation and computer simulation analysis," said Yoon.

Yoon's remarks again bolstered suspicions of North Korea's involvement, possibly in a torpedo or mine attack, though North Korea has rejected allegations it was involved. The site of the sinking is near where the two Koreas fought bloody skirmishes in 1999, 2002 and last November.

It was confirmed Sunday that a North Korean general in charge of operations against South Korea has recently been promoted, raising suspicion over a possible link between the promotion and the sinking of the Cheonan.

Kim Myung-kook, director of the North Korean military's operations department, had been demoted by one rank to a three-star general shortly after the North's defeat in the inter-Korean naval gun battle near Daecheong Island last November.

But Kim was seen on North Korean television on Saturday bearing four stars while accompanying North Korean leader Kim Jong-il during an inspection of a military training.

Earlier Sunday, Defense Minister Kim Tae-young told reporters that the most likely cause of the sinking of the Cheonan was the "bubble jet" created by an external explosion under the ship.

"A factor that is believed to be a bubble jet effect most likely caused the Cheonan to sink, though the possibility of other causes is still under investigation," Kim said, estimating that it would take about one month before the joint investigation team comes up with its final result.

According to researchers, a bubble jet effect occurs when a mine or torpedo goes off under a ship from some distance. The bubble jet creates a huge column of water due to the change in pressure that impacts the ship.

In the explosion of the Cheonan, however, a water column was not witnessed. Regarding the absence of a water column, co-chairman Yoon said that the size of a bubble jet can be minimal, depending on the distance between the ship and the point of the underwater explosion.

The preliminary investigation result came as South Korea's government declared a five-day national mourning period in memory of the 46 sailors killed in the worst peacetime naval disaster.

April 29, the day of a joint funeral for the seamen, has also been designated as a national day of mourning, Prime Minister Chung Un-chan said in a public statement.

"The funeral for the 46 fallen crewmen of the Cheonan will be held April 29 in the name of the Navy," Chung said, referring to the funeral ceremony scheduled to take place at a naval base in Pyeongtaek, about 70 kilometers south of Seoul, on Thursday.

"The government will carry out an objective and thorough investigation into the cause of the disaster and take stern measures accordingly. It will also thoroughly review the nation's defense posture," said Chung.

Forty of the ship's 104 crew members have been confirmed dead, and six more still remained missing. But the government and their families have agreed to classify them as killed in action. The 58 others were rescued before the vessel sank.

The government has decided to posthumously promote all of the 46 deceased seamen by one rank and award them all the Hwarang Cordon of the Order of Military Merit in honor of their patriotism, Chung said.

The Ministry of Public Administration and Security said a memorial altar will be set up at 32 locations nationwide, including Seoul Plaza in the center of Seoul, to allow ordinary citizens to pay their respects. The defense ministry also said a memorial altar will be set up at 89 major military bases nationwide in honor of the deceased seamen.

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