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2009/12/09 10:54 KST
(Yonhap Feature) S. Korean sailors recount latest gunfight with N. Korean Navy

By Sam Kim
ABOARD CHAMSURI 325, South Korea, Dec. 9 (Yonhap) -- Catching sight of shells whizzing overhead, South Korean Navy Lt. Kim Sang-hun said he shouted through his radio ordering his men to fire back at a North Korean boat whose guns began flashing at the barrels.

   "Enemy firing! Fire back!" Kim told his men, prompting his Chamsuri 325 to engage in a gunfight with the North Korean patrol boat on Nov. 10 off the west coast of the Koreas.

   The skirmish, the third in a decade, erupted when the North Korean vessel fired upon Kim's 170-ton speed boat three kilometers away after crossing the Northern Limit Line (NLL) that serves as a de facto inter-Korean boundary in the Yellow Sea.

   North Korea, which refuses to recognize the line, claims South Korean boats infringed on its territory and prompted its Navy to repel them at that time. Speaking this week in the first interview granted to journalists since the battle, Kim, 27, said the two-minute gunfight only began when a North Korean boat opened fire with its three onboard guns after breaching the NLL despite warning shots.

   "I could literally see the shells flying at us. Some skidded off the water and slammed into the side of our boat," he said, speaking aboard the Chamsuri 325, the very boat that engaged with the North Korean Navy a decade ago.

   No South Koreans died in the 1999 battle while about two dozen North Koreans were estimated to have been killed. In 2002, the North Korean Navy again opened fire and killed six South Korean sailors near the NLL.

   "I kept shouting to my men, 'stay calm, stay calm,' through the radio," Kim said, recounting last month's skirmish. "How exhilarated I was as I checked the face of each of my men after the gunfight and found none were hurt."

   Kim said he chose to stay on the open bridge along with his junior officer while the battle went on even though it was apparent that the North Koreans were aiming at his orange-colored life vest.

   "Ducking inside would've been demoralizing for my troops," he said, speaking aboard his boat docked at 2nd Fleet Command in Pyeongtaek, 70km southwest of Seoul.

   Twenty-three shells smashed into his boat, many of them on the bridge and the control room, Navy officials said
Kim and his fellow sailors said they were relieved when they saw the North Korean boat engulfed in flames moments after they fired back with automatic 40- and 20-millimeter guns.

   "The North Korean boat started bursting in the center, and then more flashes followed on every side," said Lt. Cdr. Goh Seung-bum, who was trailing several hundred meters behind Kim on another South Korean speed boat.

   Goh said he was not sure whether any of the North Korean sailors had been hit with shells fired from the four South Korean speed boats that had operated in the area.

   "We're still not sure whether the North Korean sailors were knocked off the ship or ran inside for cover," Goh, 36, said.

   Some media, citing anonymous sources, said one North Korean died and three others were wounded in the battle in which the South Korean side used nearly 5,000 shells, or 100 times more firepower.

   But South Korean officials, including the defense minister, have dismissed the reports on North Korean casualties as unfounded.

   "There was no evidence, either intercepted communications or visual signs, clearly suggesting the scale of North Korean casualties at the time," a rear admiral said at 2nd Fleet Command.

   The officer, who declined to be identified in the media citing security reasons, said should the communist neighbor attack again, it will likely mobilize more than a ship.

   "We set up and operate plans assuming another attack will likely involve coastline artillery because, by now, the North Koreans have realized ship-to-ship engagements are hard to win," he said.

   North Korea last month vowed "merciless" retaliation following the clash, which reflects the tension that persists between the Koreas. The sides remain technically at war after the 1950-53 Korean War ended in a truce rather than a peace treaty.

   Experts say the defense capabilities of the two Koreas have grown disproportionately over the decades as the South flourished with its export-driven economy while the North remained isolated.

   A nuclear armed North Korea is one of a handful of options that remain with the communist state's ruler, Kim Jong-il, they say, citing two atomic tests in the last several years.

   U.S. special envoy on North Korea, Stephen Bosworth, is in Pyongyang as he attempts to bring the North back to six-nation denuclearization talks that have been stalled since last year.

   The talks include the Koreas, China, Japan, the U.S. and Russia.

   Controversy lingers over North Korea's motive behind the naval attack, which raised tension days before U.S. President Barack Obama began a four-nation Asia trip that included a visit to Seoul.

   Paik Hak-soon, a North Korea specialist at the non-governmental Sejong Institute, said the clash appears to be accidental considering a recent thaw in the North's relations with the outside world.

   "The North Koreans are showing their best behavior in years in the diplomatic circle. They know it does them no good to provoke a conflict at a time like this," he said in a recent interview.

   "North Korea may have intended to strengthen its bargaining power by raising tension ahead of Obama's Asian trip," said Yoo Ho-yeol, a North Korea professor at Korea University in Seoul.

   On Wednesday, Kim, the lieutenant, received the highest medal of honor that an enlisted South Korean man can, only the second to do so in the last decade after his predecessor on the Chamsuri 325.

   Ryu Tae-kyoung, a 2nd Fleet Command lieutenant junior grade married to Kim, said the couple are honored but the other sailors deserve just as much recognition as her husband.

   "All of them risk their lives at sea, day in and day out. They managed to return unscathed because they stuck together, and they will do so again should the North attack again," she said.