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North Korea threatens South over naval clash

HYUNG-JIN KIM
Associated Press Writer

SEOUL, South Korea (AP) – North Korea threatened South Korea on Thursday after their first naval skirmish in seven years, as Seoul expressed confidence it can deter any retaliation from its communist neighbor.

The two Koreas clashed at sea Tuesday for the first time in seven years, with each side accusing the other of violating the disputed western sea border and firing first.

South Korean officials claimed victory, saying a North Korean ship suffered heavy damage during the two-minute battle. They said a South Korean ship was lightly damaged and there were no casualties on their side.

A senior military officer told The Associated Press on Wednesday that one North Korean officer was killed and three others wounded. He spoke on condition of anonymity because the matter involved intelligence.

On Thursday, the North’s main Rodong Sinmun newspaper said in a commentary that it will not tolerate what it claimed was South Korea’s dispatch of navy ships into its territorial waters and firing at a North Korean vessel.

“Our unchanged principle is no forgiveness and merciless punishment for warmongers who infringe upon our republic’s dignity and sovereignty,” said the commentary, carried by the official Korean Central News Agency. It didn’t specify how the North would punish the South.

Anther state newspaper, Minju Joson, also warned that South Korea would face “costly consequences.” It said the clash stemmed from a plot by the South to disrupt direct talks that are planned between Pyongyang and Washington by inspiring anti-North Korea sentiment among American officials.

President Barack Obama plans to send a senior envoy to Pyongyang by year’s end for the first direct talks between the wartime foes during his administration. U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton said in Singapore on Wednesday that the skirmish would not scuttle a planned visit to Pyongyang by special envoy Stephen Bosworth.

Stephen Bosworth’s trip is aimed at persuading communist North Korea to return to six-nation nuclear disarmament negotiations. North Korea walked away from those talks earlier this year.

South Korean officials shrugged off the North’s threats, saying they were ready to deter any aggression.

“We will resolutely safeguard the NLL,” a Defense Ministry official said, referring to the Northern Limit Line, a de facto western sea border drawn up by the U.N. command at the end of the 1950-53 Korean War. The North has long insisted it be redrawn further south.

A Joint Chiefs of Staff officer also reiterated that the skirmish broke out as the North Korean ship opened fire after violating the border and ignoring warnings shots from the South Korean ship.

Both officials spoke on condition of anonymity citing department policy.

South Korea’s 680,000-member military went on high alert following the naval clash to cope with possible retaliation. South Korean media reported the country has deployed up to four destroyers and warships near the sea border – the scene of two bloody skirmishes in 1999 and 2002.

“Our warship repelled the North Korean patrol vessel in a single stroke,” Navy Chief of Staff Jung Ok-keun said in a speech Wednesday marking the 64th anniversary of the navy’s foundation.

“We’re fully prepared for North Korea’s possible additional provocation and will unshakably, resolutely and sternly respond in any situation,” he said.

South Korea’s military said there has been no sign of suspicious activities from North Korean troops, but news reports said the North has also placed its 1.2 million-strong army on high alert.

Defense Minister Kim Tae-young told the National Assembly on Tuesday that he believed the North may take retaliatory actions, saying President Lee Myung-bak “also has such concerns.”

But Choi Jong-chul, a professor at Korea National Defense University, said it’s unlikely the North will act ahead of talks with the U.S. He said Seoul also doesn’t also want see tensions rise.

“It would be in the interest of both Koreas not to escalate the situation,” Choi said.

The two Koreas have remained technically at war since the Korean War ended with an armistice, not a peace treaty. The U.S., which has never had diplomatic relations with North Korea, stations 28,500 troops in South Korea to deter potential North Korean aggressions.

Associated Press writers Kwang-tae Kim in Seoul and Matthew Lee in Singapore contributed to this report.