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2008/05/22 09:57 KST
N. Korea violates western sea border amid growing tension

   SEOUL, May 22 (Yonhap) -- North Korea has violated the western inter-Korean sea border three times this year, officials said Thursday, amid worsening ties between the sides after the launch of the hardline Lee Myung-bak administration.

   The violations, however, are "nothing new" and should not be seen as an attempt to escalate tensions at the border where two naval clashes have left dozens of troops killed or injured on both sides, they said.

   Nonetheless, the North's repeated violations of the Northern Limit Line (NLL) have put the South Korean Navy on alert, an official said.

   The latest violation occurred Saturday when a North Korean Navy patrol boat crossed the border and sailed 3.2 kilometers into South Korean waters, according to the official.

   "We believe the North Korean patrol boat's violation of the NLL was a simple mistake for now, but we are carefully examining recent incidents to determine whether the North is intentionally creating tension in the West Sea ahead of the crab-catching season," the official said, while speaking on condition of anonymity due to the sensitivity of the issue.

   Drawn by the U.S.-led United Nations Command shortly after the end of the 1950-53 Korean War, the NLL serves as a de facto border, but the communist North demands it be redrawn. The North's violation of the NLL led to deadly clashes between the naval forces of the divided Koreas in 1999 and 2002.

   What worries officials here is that the North's provocations in the West Sea have become more frequent since the inauguration in February of President Lee Myung-bak, who has been labeled by the communist North as an impostor and a traitor.

   The North's first violation of the NLL this year came on March 28 when one of its patrol ships crossed the border and remained in South Korean waters for some 10 minutes. The communist nation then test-fired several short-range missiles later that day from a ship operating in the West Sea.

   The second violation came earlier this month when two North Korean Navy vessels penetrated 1.9 kilometers into South Korean waters in the West Sea.

   Still, officials noted the recent activities in the West Sea will not lead to immediate hostilities, saying the provocations are "nothing new." North Korea violated the NLL eight times last year, and 65 times since 2001.