SEOUL, South Korea — An explosion caused by a torpedo likely tore apart and sank a South Korean warship near the North Korean border, Seoul's defense minister said Sunday, while declining to assign blame for the blast as suspicion increasingly falls on Pyongyang.
Defense Minister Kim Tae-young said an underwater explosion appeared to have ripped apart the vessel, and a torpedo blast seemed the most likely cause. Investigators who examined salvaged wreckage separately announced a close-range, external explosion likely sank it.
"Basically, I think the bubble jet effect caused by a heavy torpedo is the most likely" cause, Kim told reporters. The bubble jet effect refers to the rapidly expanding bubble an underwater blast creates and the subsequent destructive column of water unleashed.
Kim, however, did not speculate on who may have fired the weapon and said an investigation was ongoing. Soon after the disaster, Kim told lawmakers a North Korean torpedo was one of the likely scenarios, but the government has been careful not to blame the North outright, and Pyongyang has denied its involvement.
The Cheonan was on a routine patrol on March 26 when the unexplained explosion split it in two in one of South Korea's worst naval disasters. Forty bodies have been recovered, but six crew members are unaccounted for and presumed dead.
The site of the sinking is near where the rival Koreas fought three times since 1999, most recently a November clash that left one North Korean soldier dead and three others wounded. The two Koreas are still technically at war because their 1950-53 Korean War ended in a truce, not a peace treaty.