Efforts to enter the hull of the sunken South Korea Cheonan warship were foiled Tuesday by strong underwater currents, dimming hope for the survival of the 46 sailors thought to be trapped inside.
Divers worked throughout the day to no avail trying to gain access to the Cheonan, a Navy corvette that was blown in two Friday night in a mysterious explosion and now sits 40 meters under water. Fifty-eight other sailors were pulled from the ship as it sank near the disputed Yellow Sea border with North Korea.
An estimate for when survivors inside the broken ship would run out of air passed Monday night, but rescuers were continuing to pump oxygen inside the vessel, hoping to extend the window.
One South Korean rescue diver died aboard a US Navy ship after having difficulty breathing, the BBC reported. A spokesman for US Forces Korea could not immediately be reached to confirm. The USNS Salvor, a salvage ship, was in the area to aid the rescue effort.
As the rescue effort entered its fifth day, politicians began to raise questions about the nation’s response to the tragedy.
A floating crane that could lift the stern of the 1,200-ton vessel, where most of the sailors are believed to be trapped, was not dispatched until Monday and likely won’t arrive at the site of the wreckage until the weekend.
Some opposition lawmakers have suggested the presidential Blue House is withholding information about the explosion’s cause and seeking to put the case to bed. So far the government has remained cautious in making its theories public, but it recently put forth the possibility that a mine floated over from North Korea.
“Basically the opposition party is highly [discontented] with the way the Blue House is handling [the investigation],” says Jaung Hoon, a political scientist at Chung-Ang University.
Professor Jaung says the lawmakers are also frustrated with the way the Blue House has been “inconsistent” about the implications of the possibility that North Korea was behind the sinking.
Kim Tae-woo, an analyst at the Korea Institute for Defense Analyses, is skeptical.
“The opposition party’s attitude is always like that,” says Kim. “Usually they try to find fault with what the government is doing. But [whether the government is withholding information] is a question ordinary South Korean civilians may want to ask also.”
Dispute over North-South maritime border
After things have cooled down, Kim says, South Korea may also have reconsider its defenses along the Northern Limit Line. The sea border between North and South, drawn by the US at the end of the Korean War, is disputed by North Korea.
A momentary outburst from the victims’ families erupted yesterday after a defense official mentioned a funeral, suggesting they had given up hope. But Kim says that seems to have passed.
“What we see is silent frustration,” he adds. “The families of the victims are very tired.”