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(LEAD) N. Korea says seized S. Korean boat illegally intruded into its waters

All Headlines 11:22 August 01, 2009

(ATTN: UPDATES with ministry spokeswoman's quote, background; TRIMS lead)
By Kim Hyun

SEOUL, Aug. 1 (Yonhap) -- North Korea's state media said Saturday it was investigating a South Korean boat that "illegally intruded deep into" its territory in the East Sea, two days after its seizure by a North Korean naval vessel.

North Korea's military sent a similar message to South Korea by fax a day earlier, and the only difference was that Saturday's media report used the word, "deep," Seoul's Unification Ministry spokeswoman Lee Jong-joo said.

"A patrol ship of the Navy of the Korean People's Amy captured one ship of South Korea on July 30 when it illegally intruded deep into the DPRK (North Korea) territorial waters in the East Sea of Korea," Pyongyang's official Korean Central News Agency said.

"A relevant institution is conducting a concrete investigation into it at present," the two-sentence report said.

On Thursday, an unnamed North Korean military official in charge of operations in the East Sea sent a fax message through an inter-Korean military communication line, saying the boat illegally intruded into North Korean waters and that a relevant body was investigating the case.

With four crewmen aboard, the 29-ton squid-fishing boat, named the Yeonanho 800, was hauled away by a North Korean patrol vessel to an eastern port in the communist country early Thursday morning after straying 13 km past the inter-Korean maritime border.

South Korean authorities suspect the boat either did not have a satellite navigation device or that it malfunctioned.

The ministry spokeswoman said North Korea customarily accuses stray fishing boats of territorial intrusion, and that this should not be viewed as some kind of warning.

"With the message, North Korea was explaining about the situation from its perspective," she said.

Seoul officials called North Korea's prompt response an encouraging sign. But they cautioned that the isolated state is often unpredictable.

"Now that there was a prompt response about the situation, I'm looking at it in a positive way," Unification Minister Hyun In-taek said on Thursday. "But I will keep an eye on the situation."

In a reply to the North Korean military, South Korea said the crossing occurred by navigational errors and requested the early release of the boat and its crew "on humanitarian grounds."

In previous incidences, fishing boats that have strayed into the North have been released after a week or two of inquiry. The latest case has caused greater concern as cross-border tensions are running high.

Some fear the fishermen could be detained for longer. A South Korean worker has been held in the North since March on accusations of insulting the North's political system at a joint industrial park.

Thursday's seizure was the first such case among South Korean fishermen since President Lee Myung-bak took office in Seoul last year.


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