North, South Korean ships exchange gunfire

By Blaine Harden
Washington Post Foreign Service
Wednesday, November 11, 2009

TOKYO -- A brief naval skirmish erupted Tuesday between North and South Korea, raising tension in Northeast Asia as President Obama prepares this week for a visit to the region.

The North and the South blamed each other for the exchange of gunfire -- the first such clash in seven years. South Korean officials said a badly damaged North Korean patrol ship retreated in flames after crossing into South Korean waters.

It was not clear whether there were any injuries or deaths aboard the North Korean vessel. North Korea issued a statement that blamed the South for "grave armed provocation," saying that ships from South Korea crossed into the North's territory.

There were no reports of South Korean casualties.

North Korea has complained for decades about the sea border, known as the Northern Limit Line, which was drawn by the U.S. military at the end of the Korean War in 1953. There have been two previous skirmishes in the region, with North Korea's aging naval ships taking a pounding from South Korea's far more modern and better-armed vessels.

The Tuesday incident appeared unlikely to break the momentum of recent moves by North Korea to improve relations with the South and the United States, which had further deteriorated this year after the North tested a nuclear device, launched a flurry of missiles and repeatedly threatened "all-out war."

Still, in Washington, White House spokesman Robert Gibbs warned North Korea that "we hope that there will be no further actions in the Yellow Sea that could be seen as an escalation."

On Monday, administration officials said Obama has decided to send a special envoy to Pyongyang for direct talks on the North's nuclear weapons program.

No date has been set, but it would be the first one-on-one talks since Obama took office in January.

Obama is expected to visit Seoul next week, as part of a 10-day Asia trip.

South Korean Defense Minister Kim Tae-young told lawmakers in Seoul on Tuesday that "no additional moves" by the North Korean military were detected after the naval skirmish.

Earlier clashes along the western sea border, even when they resulted in many casualties on the North Korean side, have not had a long-term destabilizing effect on North-South relations.

Those relations have improved markedly since August, when North Korea seemed to shift from a pattern of confrontation to one of consultation with the South about economic programs. Visits between families long separated by the Korean War have resumed, and South Korea has said it would restart a limited program of food aid for the North.

Analysts in Seoul told reporters that North Korea may have started the skirmish to ensure that Obama does not ignore Pyongyang during his first visit to the region as president.

According to the South Korean military, a North Korean patrol boat crossed the sea border shortly before noon, ignored several warning shots from nearby South Korean naval vessels and fired its guns at a patrol boat from the South.

Ships from the two countries were about two miles apart when they exchanged fire, said Rear Adm. Lee Ki-shik, according to Yonhap, a South Korean news agency.

The North's official Korean Central News Agency said that the South sent a "group of warships" across the border to stage an attack but that one of the North's patrol boats "lost no time to deal a prompt retaliatory blow at the provokers."

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