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2009/11/12 11:15 KST
NORTH KOREA NEWSLETTER NO. 80 (November 12, 2009)

*** TOPIC OF THE WEEK (Part 1)

Koreas Clash in Yellow Sea, Raise Tension ahead of Obama Trip

SEOUL (Yonhap) -- North and South Korea collided on Nov. 10 in their first naval engagement in seven years, raising tension as U.S. President Barack Obama prepared to visit Asia next week and calibrate steps to deal with Pyongyang.

   The naval skirmish occurred just before midday when a North Korean patrol boat entered South Korean waters and responded to a warning shot with live fire, the South Korean military said. The two-minute battle forced the North Korean vessel to retreat after taking heavy damage, though there were no South Korean casualties.

   Similar skirmishes in 1999 and 2000 caused dozens of casualties. North Korea has long tried to defy the Northern Limit Line (NLL), the de facto maritime border drawn by the U.N. Command at the end of the 1950-53 Korean War.

   In the latest clash, the North Korean patrol boat fired 50 rounds on the South Korean boat after intruding well into South Korean waters, the military said. The naval boats were a little over 3km from each other when they exchanged fire, it added.

   South Korean officials said the South retaliated by firing about 200 rounds from the ship's guns, which they say are more advanced than North Korea's.

   Pyongyang disputed the South Korean account of the skirmish, claiming the South sent "a group of warships" across the border to attack its boat returning to port after a routine patrol.

   The "combat-ready" North Korean patrol boat "lost no time to deal a prompt retaliatory blow at the provokers," the (North) Korean People's Army (KPA) said in a statement carried by the North's official Korean Central News Agency (KCNA).

   South Korea's Prime Minister Chung Un-chan said the clash was "accidental," and the Unification Ministry dismissed speculation it would dampen increasing exchanges between the two countries.

   "We are not considering restrictive measures such as minimizing the number of visitors to the North and other artificial control measures," ministry spokesman Chun Hae-sung said.

   President Lee Myung-bak convened an emergency security meeting following the incident, calling on the military to "react decisively yet calmly to make sure the situation does not further deteriorate," Lee Dong-kwan, a presidential spokesman, said in a release.

   But Defense Minister Kim Tae-young said the president expressed concern the North may retaliate, even though "no additional moves" by the North Korean military were detected north of the heavily armed border.

   The United States warned North Korea not to escalate tensions on the Korean Peninsula following the latest naval clash. "I would say to the North Koreans that we hope that there will be no further actions in the Yellow Sea that could be seen as an escalation," White House spokesman Robert Gibbs said.

   But Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said on Nov. 11 the inter-Korean naval clash will not affect U.S. plans to send its point man on North Korea to Pyongyang "in the near future" as part of the six-party process to denuclearize the North. "This does not in any way affect our decision to send Ambassador (Stephen) Bosworth," Clinton told reporters in Singapore where she is attending a ministerial meeting of the Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation forum.

   The clash comes just one week before Barack Obama is scheduled to visit Seoul. He and President Lee will discuss how to persuade North Korea to come back to the six-party talks on ending its nuclear program and other issues of mutual concern.

   Analysts say the clash is unlikely to have a long-lasting influence on inter-Korean ties or the brewing mood for direct talks between Washington and Pyongyang.

   In stark contrast to the previous two naval skirmishes when several North Korean navy ships collectively entered South Korean waters and launched a preemptive attack on the South, this year's provocation involved only one North Korean vessel.

   Also unlike in 1999 and 2002, North Korea's state media abstained from using aggressive expressions as "grave consequences" or "retaliation" in its official reaction to the clash.

   Chang Yong-seok, a North Korea expert with the Institute for Peace Affairs, a non-governmental think tank in Seoul, said that even if the North intended to prompt the South Korean Navy's military action, "the provocation doesn't seem to be aimed to bring the whole relationship back to tension."

   The skirmish comes amid an accelerating thaw between the Koreas, whose relations turned frosty following the inauguration of President Lee early last year.

   Slapped with sanctions for its May nuclear test, North Korea has in recent months extended peace overtures to the outside world, and South Korean media have speculated the two Koreas were working secretly to set up summit talks.

   The North's intrusion is seen by some as an attempt to attract the U.S. attention ahead of Obama's Asian trip, which begins Nov. 12.

   "It appears to be a move to raise tension ahead of Obama's visit to South Korea," said Yoo Ho-yeol, a North Korea professor at Korea University in Seoul. "North Koreans believe tension helps them strengthen their bargaining power."

   But Ryu Gil-jae, a professor at the University of North Korean Studies in Seoul, disagreed, saying the incident appeared aimed at testing the South Korean government.

   "North Korea would have test-fired missiles if it had wanted to vex the U.S.," he said. "The Yellow Sea clash is more of a message to the South that it should be taken more seriously."

   Bruce Klingner, a senior fellow at the conservative Heritage Foundation think-tank, said, "The North Korean skirmish is more likely related to North Korea's renewed efforts to press its claims to redelineating the NLL rather than as a signal related to President Obama's trip or renewed U.S.-North Korean bilateral dialogue." "The excursion by only one North Korean ship suggests it was a continuation of tactical-level naval probing rather than a strategic message by Kim Jong-il."

   Scott Snyder, director for the Center for U.S.-Korea Policy at the Asia Foundation, said, "I don't see the firefight as having much significance for U.S.-DPRK interaction. It really is an issue that is much more likely to be significant in inter-Korean relations."

   Kang Sung-yoon, a North Korea specialist at Seoul's Dongguk University, said the North Korean attack on the South appears to serve more than one purpose.

   "It could be aimed at pressuring both the U.S. and South Korea to engage in dialogue with Pyongyang more seriously," he said while warning against jumping to a conclusion on the motive.

   South Korea's Defense Minister Kim Tae-young also said he has yet to be sure about the motive, suspecting that the attack may have been planned considering that the North Korean boat retained communication with its command during the crossing.

   "But on the other hand, it is not easy to conclude that a provocation would be conducted with only one ship," Kim told lawmakers in a parliamentary hearing.