South Korean military ships sank a North Korean torpedo boat and badly damaged a second vessel today during a 10-minute firefight in disputed waters off the west coast of the Korean Peninsula, South Korean officials said.
Two South Korean ships also were damaged, but there were no immediate reports of casualties on either side, according to the South Korean Defense Ministry in Seoul. Ministry officials said a North Korean ship opened fire about 9:25 a.m. as South Korean ships attempted to physically push it back toward its own territory.
The firefight followed more than a week of tension in the disputed waters. North Korean military vessels have been making daily incursions into the crab-rich area since June 8, accompanying fishing boats. South Korea has responded daily by sending a small flotilla of military ships to the area to drive the North Koreans back. In several cases, those ships have used a "shoulder-to-shoulder" maneuver, coming alongside a North Korean ship and driving it north.
North Korean incursions are common in the area, about 60 miles northwest of Seoul, where North Korea has never formally recognized the borderline separating the territorial waters of the two Koreas. In the past, the North Koreans have almost always retreated quickly when confronted by South Korean ships.
Today's shooting came about 30 minutes before the American-led U.N. Command and North Korean officials met in the border village of Panmunjom to discuss the standoff at sea. The Command has supervised the ceasefire on the peninsula since the end of the Korean War in 1953.
The talks took place as scheduled, but U.N. Command officials said later that no agreement was reached.
White House officials in Washington and U.S. military officials in Seoul said they were monitoring the situation closely. North Korea's state media today said that the North's generals at the Panmunjom meeting "lodged a strong protest . . . against military provocations being committed by South Korean naval vessels."
North Korean media did not say specifically that a North Korean boat had been sunk. But South Korean officials said that they believed the ship that sank was an 80-ton Soviet-designed P-6 torpedo ship and that the damaged boat was a patrol boat, the Associated Press reported.
North and South Korean soldiers have periodically exchanged gunfire along their border for the past 46 years. The DMZ separating the two nations is the world's most heavily fortified, and hundreds of soldiers on both sides, as well as some Americans, have been killed in skirmishes while patroling the front lines.
Today's exchange is the most violent since September 1996, when 24 North Korean commandos on a spy submarine were killed when their ship went aground off the east coast of South Korea and a dozen South Korean soldiers and civilians were killed in the aftermath. In June 1998, nine North Koreans died when their sub sank in South Korean waters.