SEOUL—A South Korean naval ship sank late Friday off Baengnyeong island in the Yellow Sea, near the border with North Korea, an official in President Lee Myung Bak’s government said, but the cause was unclear.
Rescue workers were searching for some 50 crew members, with 58 already rescued, an official said. The president called a meeting of national security officials to discuss the incident.
An official with the Joint Chiefs of Staff in Seoul said early Saturday that the ship sank some four hours after it began taking on water. The official spoke on condition of anonymity, in line with department policy.
The ship was on a routine patrol when it started sinking about 9 p.m. Friday with a hole in its stern, the cause of which remains unclear, the official said.
South Korea’s navy fired a warning shot toward the north at objects that appeared on radar, the official said. The objects may have been a group of birds, the official said in response to earlier reports that the navy fired at an unidentified ship.
Officials downplayed suggestions that the sinking may have been the result of an attack by North Korea.
Earlier, South Korean media had quoted officials as saying the North could have torpedoed the ship near the disputed western ocean border that separates the two Koreas—divided by a hostile truce since the 1950-53 Korean War.
The sinking comes as North Korea, the world’s most tightly closed country, labors under tighter international sanctions that followed its banned nuclear and missile tests.
It also coincides with mounting pressure on Pyongyang to call off a more than one-year boycott of international talks to end its efforts to build a nuclear arsenal.
The West coast of the Korean Peninsula was the scene of two deadly naval fights between the rival Koreas over the last decade.
Navies from the rival Koreas exchanged gunfire for the first time in seven years in the Yellow Sea in November, damaging vessels on both sides.
Earlier Friday, North Korea's military threatened "unpredictable strikes," including a nuclear attack, in anger over a report that South Korea and the U.S. were preparing for possible instability in the totalitarian country.
Original reporting by RFA’s Korean service and news agencies. Written in English by Sarah Jackson-Han.