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Ship sinking reveals hole in S. Korea's naval defense

All Headlines 16:10 April 27, 2010

By Chang Jae-soon

SEOUL, April 27 (Yonhap) -- Last month's deadly sinking of a naval ship should serve as a wake-up call to South Korea that its naval defense against the North is far from watertight and vulnerable especially to submarine infiltrations, experts said Tuesday.

North Korea, despite its denial, is the prime -- and probably sole -- suspect in the March 26 sinking of the 1,200-ton South Korean patrol ship Cheonan. Investigators said the ship appears to have been hit by a "non-contact" underwater explosion, possibly from a torpedo or a sea mine.

That raises questions about whether the communist nation is capable of mounting such an elaborate, secret attack that penetrates South Korea's heavy security along the countries' western maritime border, the scene of bloody gun battles between the two sides in 1999, 2002 and last year.

Experts say the North's navy has enough submarine capabilities to do make such an attack.

"North Korea's submarine capabilities are far greater than we estimate," a former senior South Korean navy commander said. "They began deploying submarines 30 years earlier than we did. They have been designing and building submarines themselves for 20 years. It would take at least 10 more years for us to catch up with the North."

He spoke on condition of anonymity, citing the issue's sensitivity.

According to the South's latest defense "white paper," North Korea has about 70 submarines, compared with the South's 10. Though the size of arsenal does not matter much in comparing the North's dilapidated and the South's modernized military hardware, the number of submarines is a big factor, as submarines are more difficult to detect, experts say.

"What is the most effective in deterring submarines is submarines," the ex-commander said, pointing out the limit that patrol ships have in detecting submarine movements.

The sailor in charge of the Cheonan's sonar said the vessel had detected no signs of a threat.

Cha Du-hyeon, a senior researcher at the Korea Institute for Defense Analyses, also said that patrol ships are designed to detect mainly regular-sized submarines, and that smaller ones, like the North's 300-ton "shark-class" submarines, can more easily evade patrol vessels.

The ex-naval commander also said that North Korea could have brought in state-of-art torpedoes from overseas, possibly from China or Russia, which can be programmed to blow up a target from a distance to create the so-called bubble jet effect, a water column powerful enough to tear a ship apart.

The "non-contact" explosion that investigators referred to could include the bubble jet effect.

Since last week, South Korea's military has been studying ways to beef up naval capabilities. A focus of the reinforcement is expected to be on improving sonar and radar capabilities of patrol ships to better detect North Korean submarines.

Song Dae-sung, head of the security think tank Sejong Institute, compared the sinking to North Korea's 1968 infiltration aimed at assassinating then South Korean President Park Chung-hee. The attempt by a group of armed guerrillas was foiled only at the last minute at a mountain behind the presidential office, Cheong Wa Dae.

"After that incident, South Korea's defense was greatly boosted," Song said. "We have to take this case seriously and should beef up naval capabilities."

The sinking killed 46 of the ship's 104 crew members, though six bodies have not been recovered. If North Korea's involvement is confirmed, it would mark the deadliest naval clash between the two sides since the 1950-53 Korean War.

South Korea has been scouring the scene for possible fragments of a weapon believed to be used in the sinking, while international experts were also working with South Korean investigators to determine the cause.

The 1950-53 conflict ended in a truce, leaving the peninsula still technically at war.

jschang@yna.co.kr
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