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2008/06/29 15:52 KST
S. Korea marks sixth anniversary of inter-Korean naval battle

   SEOUL, June 29 (Yonhap) -- Prime Minister Han Seung-soo offered an apology Sunday to the families of six South Korean soldiers killed in a 2002 naval clash with North Korea in the West Sea, saying the government has not properly honored their sacrifice.

   South Korea's previous liberal governments had officially labelled the tragic incident an "accidental exchange of gunfire," not a naval battle, although the skirmish was a clear reminder of the grim reality that the two Koreas remain at war.

   The families of the fallen soldiers have argued that the previous governments played down the significance of the incident in a bid to keep the fragile mood of inter-Korean reconciliation in tact. They also claimed that the military authorities did not want to talk publicly about the skirmish that had left six soldiers dead and 18 others injured. The North's losses in the incident remain unconfirmed.

   Delivering a message at a ceremony to mark the sixth anniversary of the incident, the prime minister described it as a "victory" for the South against the North's provocative attack.

   "We have not appraised the Second Yeonpyeong Naval Battle correctly and have not honored the lofty sacrifice properly," Han said in the ceremony held at the Command of the Second Fleet in Pyeongtaek, 70km south of Seoul. A previous inter-Korean naval skirmish near Yeonpyeong Island occurred in 1999.

   North Korea disputes the Northern Limit Line (NLL), the de-facto maritime border between the two Koreas that was drawn unilaterally by U.S.-led U.N. forces at the end of the Korean War. The waters near the NLL in the West Sea remain a potential flash point.

   "I apologize to the bereaved families and the wounded who have endured such difficult times," Han said.