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Koreas Blame Each Other in Navy Clash


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Koreas Blame Each Other in Navy Clash

Sun Jun 30,12:30 AM ET

By CHRISTOPHER TORCHIA, Associated Press Writer

SEOUL, South Korea (AP) - Hours after North Korea ( news - web sites) sank a South Korean patrol boat Saturday, the president of the South and commander of U.S. forces in the country accused North Korea of violating the armistice that ended the Korean war.

A defiant North said the South fired first.

The 21-minute confrontation in the Yellow Sea is the worst border clash in recent years on the world's last Cold War frontier and killed four sailors and wounded 19. It dealt a new blow to Korean reconciliation efforts and embarrassed the South during its moment in the sun as host to the World Cup soccer tournament.

South Korean President Kim Dae-jung called an emergency meeting of the National Security Council and sent a 1,200-ton battleship to the poorly marked border, accompanied by a squadron of fighter jets.

"The military provocation of pre-emptive firing by a North Korean navy patrol ship is a clear violation of the armistice and an act that raises tension on the Korean peninsula. We cannot keep silent," Kim said.

In a statement after the meeting, Defense Minister Kim Dong-shin demanded an apology, the punishment of those responsible and a promise from North Korea to refrain from such actions in the future.

U.S. and South Korean forces were in "close contact" after the attack, said Gen. Leon LaPorte, who commands some 37,000 U.S. troops stationed in South Korea as a deterrent against North Korea

"This provocative act by North Korea is a serious violation of the Armistice Agreement and could have serious implications in many areas," he said.

LaPorte's statement did not elaborate. He has asked for a command meeting with North Korean officers to investigate, but said the North has not responded.

Washington also expressed its support for South Korea.

"We support the stance of our ally against armed provocation," said Brenda Greenberg, a State Department spokeswoman.

It was unclear how the clash might affect U.S. efforts to end a prolonged suspension of security talks with North Korea. Washington had earlier proposed a resumption in the second week of July in North Korea.

There was no immediate word on North Korean casualties or missing. A Northern warship was seen being towed away from the battle scene in flames, according to South Korea's Joint Chiefs of Staff.

A Pentagon spokesman, Cmdr. Randy Sandoz, said there was no "heightened alert" and South Korea had not made any request for U.S. assistance.

The clash occurred at 10:25 a.m. as South Korean navy vessels tried to repel two North Korean navy warships and an unspecified number of Northern fishing boats, the Southern military said.

Two North Korean warships ventured three miles into the South's waters, ignoring loudspeaker warnings to withdraw, the military said.

One of the Northern boats then fired a heavy caliber gun from about 500 yards, scoring a direct hit on the steering room of a South Korean patrol boat with 27 sailors aboard, the South's military said.

"All of a sudden, I saw a glint of bright light from the enemy ship and a moment later, our ship was ablaze," South Korean navy Staff Sgt. Hwang Chan-kyu, told KBS-TV, a South Korean television news station, on Sunday. Hwang suffered minor shrapnel wounds and had a bandage around his head.

Hwang said the first enemy shots hit his ship's steering room, fatally wounding the commanding officer, Lt. Yoon Young-ha. Three sailors died in an exchange of fire that followed.

North Korean state-run media denied the claim, saying the northern vessel was defending itself against an intrusion into the North's waters.

"Lt. Yoon was bleeding heavily from his back but was still alive, so I tried artificial respiration on him but it wasn't helpful," Hwang said. "A few feet away, I saw another colleague dying, and I pulled the trigger on my machine gun like a madman."

The clash was the worst in three years, killing at least four South Koreans — a lieutenant and three enlisted men. At least one South Korean was missing. The South Korean military said 22 sailors were injured, but later revised the number to 19.

The skirmish was a setback to Kim's so-called "sunshine" policy of trying to engage the isolated, communist North, which shares a sealed, heavily fortified border with the South. The 1950-53 Korean War ended with an armistice, not a peace treaty.

South Korea's opposition Grand National Party, which has criticized Kim's policy toward the North as too lenient, speculated that North Korea was trying to disrupt the World Cup soccer tournament, which is being co-hosted by South Korea and Japan and ends Sunday.

Kim canceled plans with Cabinet ministers and aides to watch the South Korean team's evening playoff game against Turkey on television. Big crowds gathered in the streets of major cities to cheer their national soccer team, which lost 3-2.

"The government will take necessary steps so the people can engage in their business without concerns," President Kim said Sunday before leaving for Japan to watch the World Cup soccer final and hold talks with Japanese leaders. Kim has urged his military to be more vigilant.

U.S.-North Korean tensions have undermined Korean reconciliation efforts, which stalled soon after the first-ever Korean summit in 2000 gave rise to a flurry of exchanges. The peninsula has been divided since 1945.

South Korea's Unification Ministry, which handles North Korea policy, said exchanges between local non-governmental groups and North Korea would continue despite the clash.

The gun battle Saturday followed a series of border incursions by North Korean navy ships into South Korean waters in the area in recent weeks.

In the summer of 1999, a series of border violations by North Korean ships touched off the first naval clash between the two Koreas since the Korean War. One North Korean warship sank and about 30 North Korean sailors died, according to South Korea. Several South Korean sailors were wounded.

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