- The Washington Times - Wednesday, November 11, 2009

SEOUL | A badly damaged North Korean patrol ship retreated in flames Tuesday after a skirmish with a South Korean naval vessel along their disputed western coast, South Korean officials said.

The first naval clash between the two sides in seven years broke out just a week before President Obama is due to visit Seoul, raising suspicions the North’s communist regime is trying to ratchet up tensions to gain a negotiating advantage.

There were no South Korean casualties, the country’s Joint Chiefs of Staff said. 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 JCS said it could not confirm the YTN report.

Each side blamed the other for violating the sea border.

The exchange of fire occurred as U.S. officials said Mr. Obama has decided to send a special envoy to Pyongyang for rare direct talks on the communist country’s nuclear weapons program. No date has been set for the visit by Stephen Bosworth, the administration’s special envoy for North Korea, but the talks would be the first one-on-one negotiations since Mr. Obama took office in January.

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 weaponized plutonium for half a dozen atomic weapons.

Traveling with Mr. Obama on Air Force One, White House spokesman Robert Gibbs told reporters the administration was aware of the clash and urged restraint on the part of North Korea.

“I would say to the North Koreans that we hope that there will be no further actions in the Yellow Sea that can be seen as an escalation,” he said, referring to the body of water where the shooting took place, which Koreans in both North and South call the West Sea.

U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon is closely watching the situation and calls for “maximum restraint by both parties,” U.N. associate spokesman Farhan Haq said at U.N. headquarters in New York.

North Korea’s military issued a statement blaming South Korea for the “grave armed provocation,” saying its ships had crossed into North Korean territory.

South Korean President Lee Myung-bak, who convened an emergency security meeting, ordered the South’s defense minister to strengthen military readiness.

South Korea’s Joint Chiefs of Staff said a North Korean patrol boat crossed the disputed western sea border about 11:27 a.m., 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 clash occurred near the South Korean-held island of Daecheong, about 120 nautical miles off the port city of Incheon, west of Seoul, the military said.

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