Seoul Accuses North Korea Of Firing Artillery Shells At Its Ship

Seoul Accuses North Korea Of Firing Artillery Shells At Its Ship

By Dirk Godder

SEOUL, South Korea — North Korea fired artillery Thursday near a South Korean warship on patrol near their disputed maritime border in the Yellow Sea, South Korea’s Joint Chiefs of Staff said.

Two shells went into the water near the corvette 9 miles south of Yeonpyeong Island, and the crew responded with several shots of its own into North Korean waters, the Joint Chiefs of Staff said.

Residents on Yeonpyeong were told to take cover in air raid shelters, but no one was hurt and no property damage was reported.

The exchange of fire occurred two days after South Korea fired warning shots at three North Korean military vessels that had crossed into South Korean waters also off their west coasts.

North Korea’s military warned Wednesday that all South Korean ships could become targets for an attack.

North Korean patrol boats frequently cross the border, which was established by the United Nations after the 1950-53 Korean War. North Korea does not recognize that border and has said it should run south of Yeonpyeong.

The border area has seen numerous clashes between warships from both Koreas, and in 2010, North Korea bombarded Yeonpyeong with artillery fire, killing two South Korean soldiers and two civilians.

Yeonpyeong lies 7.5 miles from North Korea’s coast and two miles south of the sea border.

AFP Photo/Jung Yeon-Je

South Korean President Compares Ferry Captain’s Behavior To Murder

South Korean President Compares Ferry Captain’s Behavior To Murder

By Dirk Godder

SEOUL — The conduct of the captain of the ferry that sank last week trapping hundreds of schoolchildren was comparable to murder, South Korean President Park Geun Hye said Monday as hopes of finding any of the missing passengers alive faded.

“The conduct of the captain and some crew members is wholly unfathomable from the viewpoint of common sense, and it was like an act of murder that cannot and should not be tolerated,” Park told a meeting with senior secretaries, according to Yonhap news agency.

The 69-year-old captain of the Sewol, Lee Jun-seok, “escaped ahead of others while telling passengers to keep their seats. This is something that is never imaginable legally or ethically.”

Lee and two crew members were arrested on Saturday, after the ferry sank off the south-western island of Jindo on Wednesday morning.

Divers on Monday tried to enter the ferry’s dining hall as they searched for victims. Sixty-four people have been confirmed dead and 238 are unaccounted for, Yonhap reported.

Hundreds of boats and divers are involved in the search, along with planes and remote-controlled vehicles that have gained access to parts of the wreck.

Four more crew members had been arrested on suspicion of abandoning the passengers and not complying with disaster relief law, Yonhap reported.

Among them was a first mate who reportedly made radio contact with maritime authorities on Jindo soon after the ferry sent a distress signal, asking whether passengers would be rescued if they abandoned the ship.

A transcript of their communication showed that the authorities ordered the ferry to take emergency steps to evacuate passengers, but these measures were apparently not taken, the report said.

There were 476 passengers and crew on the ship, including at least 320 students and 15 teachers from Danwon High School in Ansan, near Seoul, when it began to capsize during a routine trip from Incheon to the southern resort island of Jeju.

Photo: Yao Qilin/Xinhua/Zuma Press/MCT

South Korea Seeks Arrest Warrant For Ferry Captain

South Korea Seeks Arrest Warrant For Ferry Captain

By Dirk Godder, McClatchy Tribune News Service

SEOUL, South Korea — South Korean state prosecutors are seeking an arrest warrant for captain Lee Jun Seok as investigators look into the actions of the crew of the ferry that capsized and sank off the country’s southwest.

The 69-year-old Lee is accused of breaches of the seaman’s code in actions that include turning over the wheel of the ship to a 26-year-old third mate.

Lee is also under investigation for being one of the first to leave while there were passengers still in danger.

Survivors state that passengers were told by loudspeaker not to move even as the ship was already beginning to capsize. According to experts, precious time was lost through the late evacuation of the ship.

Meanwhile, rescuers intensified the search for the 268 passengers, mostly schoolchildren, still missing two days after the accident.

A total of 28 were confirmed dead by Friday afternoon, and 179 rescued, Yonhap News Agency said.

“It seems like bodies have begun to spill out of the sunken ship due to current shifts,” Yonhap quoted an official as saying.

All bodies recovered were found in the sea near the Sewol ferry, not retrieved from the wreck.

Rescue ships and cranes were moved into place as the hull finally disappeared beneath the waves around noon local time, the report said.

Divers accessed the inside of the submerged ship for the first time, battling strong currents and water as cold as 54 degrees Fahrenheit, Yonhap said. Underwater visibility was as low as 8 inches, according to China’s Xinhua news agency.

Rescuers were also pumping oxygen into the boat to help potential survivors breathe, and restore some of its buoyancy, Yonhap quoted coast guard officials as saying.

Cranes were preparing to either lift the boat, currently lying in about 100 feet of water, or move it to weaker currents where it would be easier to access.

“We are reviewing the options very carefully, as the salvage operations may hurt survivors trapped inside,” a coast guard officer was quoted as saying.

The Sewol sank on Wednesday while traveling from Incheon near the capital Seoul to the southern resort island of Jeju.

Investigators were reportedly looking into the possibility that the ship’s cargo shifted, causing the capsize. The ship carried vehicles and shipping containers in addition to passengers.

Police and prosecutors have raided the offices of Chonghaejin Marine Co., which owns the ship, for information.

There were 475 passengers and crew on the vessel, including 325 students and 15 teachers from Danwon High School in Anson, near Seoul.

The school’s 52-year-old vice principal was found hanged from a tree in an apparent suicide on the nearby island of Jindo after being rescued from the ship, Yonhap said, giving his name only as Kang.

U.S. President Barack Obama expressed his “deepest condolences to the Republic of Korea and the families of all those who have seen their loved ones lost” in the ferry sinking.

Yao Qilin/Xinhua/Zuma Press/MCT

Criticism Mounts In South Korean Ferry Disaster; Death Toll Rises To 14

Criticism Mounts In South Korean Ferry Disaster; Death Toll Rises To 14

By Dirk Godder

SEOUL, South Korea — Survivors of a capsized South Korean ferry lashed out Thursday at what they called inadequate safety procedures they say likely cost dozens, if not hundreds, of lives.

The accusations — including reports that the captain was among the first to leave the ship and that passengers had been told to stay in their rooms even as the danger became more apparent — came as the death toll rose to 14 and military divers returned to the ship in the hope that some survivors might still be trapped inside.

The ferry sank Wednesday morning with 475 people on board, more than 300 of them students on an outing. So far, only about 180 have been confirmed rescued.

Rescue operations have been made difficult by bad conditions, with the search halted at least once Thursday before resuming in the evening. Ten attempts to enter the ship earlier Thursday failed.

The situation was made more tense with reports of survivors still in the boat sending text messages to loved ones back home. “I’m afraid we’re all going to die,” read one reported by the Yonhap news agency. However, authorities dismissed all such messages as fakes.

Lee Jun Seok, 60, the captain of the ferry was questioned Thursday as a suspect in the fatal incident. There were reports that he could face charges of negligence, though a spokesman for the coast guard would not confirm this.

Lee issued a statement apologizing to the family of the victims and expressing his regret for the incident.

But many family members were in no mood to hear the apologies, especially amid unconfirmed reports that Lee was one of the first to leave the ship and that only one of the ferry’s 46 lifeboats was ever lowered into the water.

Survivors also criticized orders from the crew, telling people not to try to leave the ship for their own safety. That meant many people had no chance to get out once it was clear the Sewol was going down.

“Many of my friends were not able to put on life vests because the water was streaming in too quickly,” high school student Lee Da Woon told local newspaper JoongAng Daily.

A total of 325 of the passengers were students from a suburban Seoul high school on a trip to the resort island of Jeju, about 50 miles south of the mainland.

Security minister Kang Byung Kyu told reporters that the difficult conditions posed “tremendous obstacles” to the rescue effort, Yonhap reported. Underwater visibility was as low as 8 inches, according to China’s Xinhua news agency.

Some 169 boats, 29 aircraft and more than 500 divers were involved in the rescue effort, Yonhap reported.

However, the chances of finding survivors in waters as cold as 54 degrees Fahrenheit were slim, emergency responders were quoted as saying by The Korea Herald newspaper.

The average person could only survive for two to three hours in such temperatures, an expert told state broadcaster Arirang. Survivors would have also needed to find an air bubble in the wreckage.

Only the rump of the ship was still visible above the water. Cranes are to be brought in in the coming days to try to raise it.

The reason for the sinking remained unknown. One theory was that the ferry had struck a rock. Survivors have said they heard a loud noise just before the ship began to go down.

A senior coast guard official, Koh Myung Seok, told reporters the ship had taken a “slightly different path” from a government-recommended route, according to Yonhap.

The ship also made an unexpectedly sharp turn, Yonhap reported coast guard officials as saying.

The crew sent a distress signal at 8:58 a.m. The coast guard said the ship listed to one side and began taking on water. It sank in two hours.

South Korean President Park Geun Hye visited the site of the capsized vessel Thursday, and urged the government to lend all available assistance to the rescue effort. Family members criticized her for only giving a short speech, but she responded by saying that every minute was “critical” for the rescue operations.

In the capital Seoul, political parties suspended their activities as the nation focused on the disaster, Yonhap reported.

Yao Qilin/Xinhua/Zuma Press/MCT

North And South Korea Exchange Shots In Maritime Drill

North And South Korea Exchange Shots In Maritime Drill

By Dirk Godder

SEOUL — North Korea on Monday held military exercises near the maritime border with the South, drawing response fire from Southern troops, Seoul’s Defense Ministry said Monday.

Around 100 artillery shells from the North landed on the other side of the Northern Limit Line, a disputed maritime border off the west of the peninsula, the South’s Joint Chiefs of Staff said.

South Korea fired 300 self-propelled howitzer shells in response, aimed at open water on the North’s side, and dispatched F-15 fighter jets to the area, the report said.

Seoul’s Defense Ministry described the maneuver as a “calculated provocation,” adding that it may have been an attempt by Pyongyang to test South Korea’s combat readiness.

“If North Korea initiated the firing practice as a provocation near the South Korean coast, we will react with a strong response,” the ministry said in a statement.

The news comes after JCS received a fax announcing the drill from the North’s Korean People’s Army earlier Monday. North Korea conducts regular artillery drills, but does not usually give warning.

Seoul banned vessels from entering the training zone declared by the North, and evacuated civilians from the nearby island of Yeonpyeong, Yonhap said. No casualties were reported.

In November 2010 two South Korean marines and two civilians were killed on the island by North Korean artillery fire. Pyongyang expressed “regret” over the incident, but claimed it was self-defense in response to naval exercises by the South.

Pyongyang on Sunday also threatened to carry out new nuclear tests despite condemnation from the U.N. Security Council for its recent missile launches into the sea.

The move is also a response to what it sees as the threat posed by a series of joint United States-South Korean military drills that are held annually.

The North has described them as a rehearsal for an invasion.

AFP Photo/Ed Jones

At Least 8 Killed In South Korea Building Collapse

At Least 8 Killed In South Korea Building Collapse

By Dirk Godder

SEOUL, South Korea – At least eight people died and dozens were trapped on Monday after a building in the South Korean city of Gyeongju collapsed, local media reported.

Rescue workers were attempting to free around 15 students trapped in the rubble of a resort complex that was hosting an introductory event for some 550 first-year students at the Busan University of Foreign Studies, the Korea Herald newspaper reported.

The remaining students attending the event, more than 70 of whom suffered injuries as a result of the collapse, have already been safely removed from the premises.

Local media reported that the roof of the building had collapsed under the weight of a large amount of snow.

A witness said the building had taken less than 10 seconds to collapse. “Many students were carried from the building with injuries,” she told news broadcaster YTN. “It was very chaotic.”

Local media reported that rescue teams had difficulties making their way to the scene of the accident due to snow blocking the roads.

South Korean Prime Minister Chung Hong-won has launched an official inquiry into the accident.

AFP Photo/Jung Yeon-Je