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(7th LD) Koreas clash in Yellow Sea, blame each other

All Headlines 16:55 November 10, 2009

(ATTN: ADDS comments from president, defense minister, military commander, N. Korea, details throughout; RESTRUCTURES throughout; RECASTS headline; TRIMS throughout)
By Sam Kim

SEOUL, Nov. 10 (Yonhap) -- A North Korean naval boat returned home "wrapped in flames" after a brief but fierce skirmish in South Korean waters off the west coast on Tuesday, Seoul officials said.

North Korea disputed the account, saying in a statement that the South must apologize for sending warships into its waters and shooting at its boat as it was returning to port after a routine patrol.

No South Korean sailors were killed in the clash that erupted shortly after the North's patrol boat crossed the Northern Limit Line (NLL) at 11:27 a.m. in the Yellow Sea, officials here said.

The shooting lasted about two minutes, R. Adm. Lee Ki-shik told reporters here, with the South Korean boat taking about 15 shots from the North Koreans, who apparently fired about 50 rounds.

"This is a regrettable incident in which the North directly aimed at the South. We protest sternly," Lee said.

South Korea retaliated by firing back with its onboard guns, Lee said. Other South Korean officials said they could not immediately verify how many rounds were fired from their side.

"We fired heavily on the North Korean vessel," a Navy official said earlier, speaking on condition of anonymity. In a 1999 skirmish near the NLL, South Korea suffered no casualties, but six of its sailors were killed when North Korea attacked in 2002.

South Korean Prime Minister Chung Un-chan told lawmakers during a televised parliamentary session that the North Korean boat returned across the border while "wrapped in flames."

He also said the incident was "accidental." President Lee Myung-bak convened an emergency national security meeting, calling for "calm" in dealing with the situation.

"The president instructed the military to react decisively, yet calmly to make sure the situation does not further deteriorate," Lee Dong-kwan, a presidential aide, said in a release.

The South Korean Navy sounded a warning twice before the North Koreans crossed the NLL -- a de facto border drawn at the end of the Korean War -- and three times afterward, according to Lee Ki-shik.

The naval boats were a little over 3km away from each other when they exchanged fire, Lee said, stressing the South Korean Navy followed standard operating procedure before the shooting erupted.

The North's Korean People's Army said in a statement released through official media that a "group of warships of the South Korean forces hastily took to flight" after violating the NLL.

The "combat-ready" North Korean patrol boat "lost no time to deal a prompt retaliatory blow at the provokers," the statement said, carried by the Korean Central News Agency (KCNA) and monitored in Seoul.

South Korean Defense Minister Kim Tae-young said in a parliamentary session that "no additional moves" by the North Korean military were detected north of the heavily armed border.

South Korean analysts gave mixed views about North Korea's possible motive behind the incident, which took place only a week ahead of an Asian trip by U.S. President Barack Obama.

"It appears to be a move to raise tension ahead of Obama's visit to South Korea," said Yoo Ho-yeol a North Korea professor at Korea University in Seoul. "North Koreans believe tension helps them strengthen their bargaining power."

Ryu Gil-jae, professor at the University of North Korean Studies in Seoul, disagreed, saying the incident appeared aimed at testing the South Korean government.

"North Korea would have test-fired missiles if it had wanted to vex the U.S.," he said. "The Yellow Sea clash is more of a message to the South that it should be taken more seriously."

The clash came amid an accelerating thaw between the Koreas, whose relations turned frosty following the inauguration of South Korean President Lee Myung-bak early last year.

It also came as French President Nicolas Sarkozy's special North Korea envoy was in the communist state for talks with its foreign minister on "matters of mutual concern," according to KCNA.

Slapped with sanctions for its May nuclear test, North Korea has in recent months extended peace overtures to the outside world, while South Korean media speculated the two Koreas were working secretly to set up summit talks.

Kang Sung-yoon, a North Korea specialist at Seoul's Dongguk University, said the North Korean attack on the South appears to serve more than one purpose.

"It could be aimed at pressuring both the U.S. and South Korea to engage in dialogue with Pyongyang more seriously," he said while warning against reaching a quick conclusion on the issue.

"Details regarding the incident should be looked at to understand what the North Korean intent really was," he said.


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