Was clash of North, South Korean navies timed to Obama visit?

South Korea accused North Korea of entering its waters and ignoring warning shots, charges the North denies.

By , Correspondent of The Christian Science Monitor

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    A North Korean soldier looks at the south side of the demilitarized zone on Panmunjom, South Korea, Tuesday. Navy ships of the two Koreas exchanged fire Tuesday along their disputed western sea border.
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A skirmish between North and South Korean Navy ships flared up Tuesday morning in the Yellow, or West, Sea, raising tensions as the region awaits US President Barack Obama's first trip to Asia since he took office.

The South Korean Navy accused the North Korean side of starting the two-minute shootout by entering South Korean waters and ignoring warning shots. North Koreans responded that its vessel was within territorial limits when the South Koreans opened fire, and demanded an apology.

According to South Korean defense officials, the North Korean vessel retreated in flames with an unknown number of casualties. The South Koreans reported no casualties, but said 50 North Korean bullets struck their vessel.

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The worst skirmish between the two countries occurred in June 1999, when North Korea challenged South Korea's authority. A North Korean vessel was sunk and about 40 North Korean sailors were believed to have been killed. In the most recent flare-up, in June 2002, a North Korean boat opened fire, killing six South Korean sailors and sinking their boat. South Korea charged that the North Korean vessel ventured considerably south of the "Northern Limit Line" in the Yellow Sea.

North Korea has repeatedly rejected the legitimacy of the border and often stated its right to enter the waters south of it. On occasion it has vowed to fight for its claim.

"The South Korean side got the best of it this time," observes Aidan Foster-Carter, a British scholar who specializes in Korean issues, but he seems uncertain why North Korea would risk a battle at sea while looking for bilateral dialogue with the US.

The attack may have been timed to precede Mr. Obama's arrival Friday in Tokyo on a trip that will take him from there to Singapore, Shanghai, and Beijing before arriving here late next week. North Korea's nuclear program will be on the agenda at every stop.

Some observers, though, believe the timing may have been coincidental. North Korea's leader Kim Jong-il must be "clever enough to see the way he's going is not going anywhere," says Mr. Foster-Carter.

A US analyst who asked for anonymity privately agrees, wondering why a North Korean vessel would open an isolated attack with no supporting forces in the area.

South Korean civilian and military officials also seem to differ on what precipitated the shootout. South Korea's Prime Minister Chung Un-chan said the incident was "accidental," while Rear Adm. Lee Ki-shik said that the North Korean attack was "directly aimed at the South," and "we protest severely."

North Korea has repeatedly threatened South Korean authority south of the line, and South Korea this year has bolstered its forces in the Yellow Sea. A guided missile vessel and a corvette have joined the flotilla of South Korean boats that patrol the waters.

The Northern Limit Line, fixed by the United Nations without North Korean assent three years after the signing of the Korean War armistice in July 1953, has long been an explosive issue. Tensions tend to heighten during the spring crabbing season, when fishing boats from China and both Koreas swarm the fish-rich seas.

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