- The Washington Times - Wednesday, March 31, 2010

BAENGNYEONG ISLAND, South Korea | South Korea’s president ordered the military on alert Tuesday for any moves by North Korea after the defense minister said a mine from the rival country may have caused the explosion that sank a South Korean naval ship.

The blast ripped the 1,200-ton ship apart Friday during a routine patrol near Baengnyeong Island near the tense maritime border west of the divided Korean peninsula. Fifty-eight crew members, including the captain, were plucked to safety; 46 are missing, with dim prospects for their survival.

A 53-year-old diver who lost consciousness during the underwater mission to locate the missing crewmen died Tuesday, the Joint Chiefs of Staff said. A second diver was being treated for injuries, officials said.

President Lee Myung-bak expressed his condolences, calling the death “unfortunate and regrettable,” according to his office.

Military officials say the exact cause of the explosion is not clear, and U.S. and South Korean officials said there was no evidence of North Korean involvement.

However, Defense Minister Kim Tae-young told lawmakers Monday that a floating mine dispatched from North Korea was one of several scenarios for the disaster.

“North Korea may have intentionally floated underwater mines to inflict damage on us,” Mr. Kim said.

A North Korean defector who used to work for the isolated regime’s spy agency also suggested that it could have been the work of a suicide attacker.

Chang Jin-seong, who fled North Korea in 2004, wrote on his personal blog that some North Korean navy combat units train specifically for suicide attacks. “Marines are trained to drive the bombs toward the target,” he said.

President Lee flew to the wreckage site Tuesday to review search operations, meet with marines and console family members, the presidential Blue House said in a statement.

Baengnyeong is just eight miles from and within sight of a North Korean military base where surface-to-ship guided missiles and artillery are deployed, the statement said.

Earlier Tuesday, Mr. Lee ordered his military to stay alert for any moves by rival North Korea.

“Since the sinking took place at the front line, the military should thoroughly prepare for any move by North Korea,” he told his Cabinet, according to his office.

The two Koreas remain in a state of war because their three-year conflict ended in a truce, not a peace treaty, in 1953. North Korea disputes the sea border drawn by the United Nations in 1953, and the western waters near the spot where the Cheonan went down have been the site of three bloody skirmishes between North and South.

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