A badly damaged North Korean patrol ship retreated in flames yesterday after a skirmish with a South Korean vessel – the first naval clash between the two nations in seven years.
The timing – just a week before US President Barack Obama is due to visit Seoul – raised suspicions that the North's reclusive Communist regime was trying to rachet up tensions to gain a negotiating advantage.
There were no South Korean casualties, the country's Joint Chiefs of Staff said in a statement. South Korea's YTN television reported that one North Korean officer was killed and three other sailors were wounded, citing an unidentified government source.
The exchange of fire occurred as US officials said Mr Obama has decided to send a special envoy to Pyongyang for rare direct talks on the country's nuclear weapons programme. The talks would be the first one-on-one negotiations since Mr Obama took office in January.
"It was an intentional provocation by North Korea to draw attention ahead of Obama's trip," said Shin Yul, a political science professor at Myongji University.
He said the North was sending a message to Mr Obama that it wants to replace the armistice agreement that ended the Korean War in 1953 with a permanent peace treaty while keeping its nuclear weapons.
Washington has consistently said that Pyongyang must abandon its nuclear arsenal for any peace treaty to be concluded. North Korea has conducted two underground nuclear tests since 2006 and is believed to have enough weaponised plutonium for half a dozen atomic weapons.
According to Seoul, a North Korean patrol boat crossed the disputed western sea border, drawing warning shots from a South Korean navy vessel.
The North Korean boat then opened fire and the South's ship returned fire before the North's vessel sailed back toward its waters. The shooting lasted for about two minutes, during which the North Korean ship fired about 50 rounds at the South Korean vessel, about two miles away.
Each side blamed the other for violating the sea border. "We are sternly protesting to North Korea and urging it to prevent the recurrence of similar incidents," Rear Admiral Lee Ki Sik told reporters.
North Korea's military issued a statement blaming South Korea for the "grave armed provocation". The North claimed that a group of South Korean warships opened fire but fled after the North Korean patrol boat dealt "a prompt retaliatory blow".
The Koreas regularly accuse each other of straying into their respective territories. South Korea's military said that North Korean ships have already violated the sea border 22 times this year.
The two sides fought deadly skirmishes along the western sea border in 1999 and 2002.
In Washington, two administration officials said that Mr Obama had decided, after months of deliberation, to send special envoy Stephen Bosworth to Pyongyang for direct talks on nuclear issues, although no date has been set.Reuse content