North Korea says naval skirmish was 'planned provocation' by South

By Blaine Harden
Washington Post Foreign Service
Thursday, November 12, 2009; 9:27 AM

TOKYO -- North Korea, which took a beating in a naval skirmish this week, claimed Thursday that the clash was a "provocation" by South Korea to derail recent progress in regional diplomacy.

When naval vessels from North and South Korea exchanged fire Tuesday near a disputed border in the Yellow Sea, a North Korean patrol boat sustained major damage, the South Korean military said.

Repeatedly hit by cannon fire from South Korean speed boats, the North's aging vessel retreated in flames, with one sailor killed and three injured, according to local media reports citing military sources. There were no South Korean casualties, although one of its boats was hit 15 times.

The North and South immediately blamed each other for violating a sea border known as the Northern Limit Line. But North Korea -- an isolated dictatorship that earlier this year detonated a nuclear device, fired a flurry of missiles and repeatedly threatened the South with "all-out war" -- is now seeing darker motives behind the skirmish that it apparently lost.

The principal newspaper in Pyongyang said Thursday that the shootout at sea was part of a South Korean "conspiracy" to sabotage "positive signs" for international diplomacy.

President Obama is scheduled to arrive Friday in Japan for an extended East Asian tour that will take him to South Korea, and the State Department announced this week that it will soon send an envoy to Pyongyang to try to persuade North Korea to return to nuclear disarmament talks. It would be the first direct one-on-one U.S. talks with the North since Obama took office. There have also been efforts by the two Koreas in recent months to mend strained economic ties.

Still, North Korea said military forces in the South want to scuttle the progress.

"This armed clash in the Yellow Sea was not some simple, accidental incident but a deliberate, planned provocation by the South Korean military that contrives to escalate tension on the Korean Peninsula," said a commentary in the Rodong Sinmun, a newspaper that speaks for the government of leader Kim Jong Il.

This face-saving account by North Korea, which reportedly had to tow away its damaged patrol boat, contradicts South Korea's version of the skirmish. Its naval officers said a North Korean patrol boat crossed the sea border on Tuesday, ignored several warning shots from nearby South Korean naval vessels and fired its guns at a patrol boat from the South.

It was the first such naval clash in seven years. North Korea has complained bitterly for years about the location of the sea border, which was established by the U.S. military when the Korean War ended in 1953.

For months, U.S. and South Korean military analysts have been predicting that North Korea would provoke some kind of fight along this border.

In Tuesday's skirmish, as in previous naval clashes in 1999 and 2002, South Korea's navy demonstrated superior hardware and firepower. Its speed boats are equipped with computer-controlled cannons capable of hitting distant targets while bobbing around in heavy seas.

The North's patrol boats, reportedly built in the 1960s, have cannons that are aimed manually and are considerably less accurate. The boats were about two miles apart during the clash, South Korea reported.

In the North, state media on Thursday said it was South Korea that sent naval ships into northern waters and started shooting. "Our unchanged principle is no forgiveness and merciless punishment for warmongers who infringe upon our republic's dignity and sovereignty," said the Rodong Sinmun newspaper. It did not specify how the North would punish the South.

Since the skirmish, South Korean military officials have reported seeing no signs of increased military activity in the North, which has about 1.2 million people in uniform and is often described as the most militarized state in the world.

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