Asia-Pacific News

North Korea admits warship sank with loss of life

Simon Mundy
Ed Jones | AFP | Getty Images

North Korea has quietly revealed the sinking of a warship in October, apparently with significant loss of life, in an unusual admission of failure by the authoritarian state.

The accident was revealed in a state media report of a visit by supreme leader Kim Jong Un to a navy cemetery containing the bodies of "commanding officers and sailors of submarine chaser No 233 [who] fell while performing their combat duties in mid-October last".

(Read more: North Korea replaces hard-line military chief)

A photograph issued by the KCNA state news agency showed Mr Kim crouching by the graves of two young sailors, whose date of death was shown as October 13.

Reining in North Korea

"Cases of troops dying in the middle of training have happened before," said Cheong Seong-chang, a researcher at the Sejong Institute. "But the fact they admit the accident in public shows a big difference in their attitude. In the past, they tried to hide such accidents."

Last April, North Korean state television announced the failure of an attempted satellite launch – in contrast with its behavior in 1998 and 2009, when it claimed successful launches despite foreign consensus that the attempts had failed.

The report of the cemetery visit stressed the grief of Mr Kim, who said he had hardly been able to sleep since the death of his "his comrades-in-arms".

(Read more: North Korea puts army on alert, warns US of 'horrible disaster')

This gesture appeared to be part of a drive by the young leader to shore up his support in the armed forces, said Daniel Pinkston at the International Crisis Group, noting that news of the accident would probably have spread through the military ranks by word of mouth.

Since taking power on the death of his father in December 2011, Mr Kim has carried out the most extensive purge of the senior ranks of the North Korean military for several decades, as he has replaced a group of elderly generals who rose to prominence under his father. Last month, state media confirmed the appointment of a fourth army chief in 15 months.

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In recent talks with former US officials, North Korean representatives have expressed their openness to a resumption of the stalled "six-party talks" on the country's nuclear programme, while insisting that there can be no preconditions for negotiations.

Participants in the discussions warn that this is at odds with US demands for North Korea to take steps towards abandoning its nuclear weapons efforts before talks can begin.

(Read more: North Korea has restarted nuclear reactor: US group)

However, discussion continues among the other members of the six-party talks. South Korean, Japanese and US officials are set to hold talks on the North Korean nuclear program in Washington this week, and the subject will also be high on the agenda during a visit by Russian president Vladimir Putin to Seoul next week.