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North and South Korean navies clash at sea

Some see incident as a provocation before Obama trip

A report viewed at the Seoul railway station yesterday showed file footage of a sea battle between the two Koreas in 2002. A report viewed at the Seoul railway station yesterday showed file footage of a sea battle between the two Koreas in 2002. (Choi Bu-Seok/Reuters)
By Kwang-Tae Kim
Associated Press / November 11, 2009

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SEOUL - The navies of North and South Korea clashed at sea yesterday for the first time in seven years in what some analysts said was a provocation by the communist nation a week before President Obama’s visit to Seoul.

The North Korean ship retreated in flames, South Korean Prime Minister Chung Un-chan said, and the South’s YTN television reported that one North Korean officer was killed and three sailors were wounded.

The South Korean Joint Chiefs of Staff said it could not confirm the report of the North Korean casualties. There were no South Korean casualties, the military said.

Chung told lawmakers that North Korean ships violated the South’s waters, although he said it was probably not intentional. He said the North Koreans may have been clamping down on Chinese fishing vessels operating in the area.

South Korean analysts, however, said North Korea was sending a clear message ahead of Obama’s two-day visit starting Nov. 18.

“It was an intentional provocation by North Korea to draw attention ahead of Obama’s trip,’’ said Shin Yul, a political science professor at Seoul’s Myongji University.

He also said the North was sending a message to Obama that it wants to replace the armistice agreement that ended the Korean War in 1953 with a permanent peace treaty while keeping its nuclear weapons.

Traveling with Obama on Air Force One, White House spokesman Robert Gibbs said the administration was aware of the clash and urged restraint on the part of North Korea.

“I would say to the North Koreans that we hope that there will be no further actions in the Yellow Sea that can be seen as an escalation,’’ he said.

UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon is closely watching the situation and called for “maximum restraint by both parties,’’ UN associate spokesman Farhan Haq said in New York. The incident shows the need to resolve all outstanding issues through dialogue and in a peaceful manner, Haq said.

The two Koreas are still technically at war and the United States, which fought as part of UN forces on South Korea’s side, has never had diplomatic relations with North Korea.

Washington has consistently said that Pyongyang must abandon its nuclear arsenal for any peace treaty to be concluded. North Korea has conducted two underground nuclear tests since 2006 and is believed to have enough weaponized plutonium for half a dozen atomic weapons.

The United States will send special envoy Stephen Bosworth to North Korea before year’s end to try to pull Pyongyang back into international negotiations on nuclear disarmament, the State Department said.

Bosworth also will try to get the North Koreans to recommit to an agreement they made in September 2005 - but subsequently abandoned - to verifiably rid the Korean peninsula of nuclear arms, department spokesman P.J. Crowley said.

“The bottom line here is that North Korea has to take affirmative steps toward denuclearization,’’ Crowley said.

He declined to say whether the North Koreans had promised to rejoin the so-called six-party talks in which the United States, China, Russia, Japan, and South Korea have sought for six years to negotiate an end to North Korea’s nuclear program.

The talks were last held in Beijing in December.

Crowley said it was not clear whether Bosworth would meet with North Korean leader Kim Jong Il. The Bosworth visit will be the first one-on-one US talks with North Korea since Obama took office.

Kim Yong-hyun, a specialist on North Korea at Seoul’s Dongguk University, also believes North Korea provoked the naval clash, but said it was careful not to let the situation escalate.

“North Korea would not create conditions that could ruin its talks with the US, given the fact that Pyongyang has demanded them,’’ he said.

A clash had been brewing for months in the disputed western sea border, which is a rich crab fishing area. Both sides regularly accuse each other of border violations and the rival militaries blamed each other for yesterday’s skirmish.

A North Korean patrol boat crossed the disputed sea border before noon, drawing warning shots from a South Korean navy vessel, South Korea’s Joint Chiefs of Staff said in a statement. It said the North Korean boat then opened fire and the South’s ship returned fire before the North’s vessel sailed back toward its waters.

The ships were about 2 miles from each other during the clash, South Korean Rear Admiral Lee Ki-sik told reporters.