- Associated Press - Sunday, August 8, 2010

SEOUL (AP) — North Korean authorities seized a South Korean fishing boat and its crew Sunday in waters off the divided peninsula’s eastern coast, the South’s coast guard said amid heightened tensions over the sinking of a southern navy ship.

Four South Korean and three Chinese fishermen were questioned for an alleged violation of the North’s exclusive economic zone, South Korea’s coast guard said in a statement. It said the fishing boat was being taken toward North Korea’s eastern port of Songjin.

A South Korean fisherman told South Korea via a satellite phone that his boat was being towed by a North Korean patrol, according to the coast guard.

The coast guard said it was not clear where exactly the 41-ton fishing boat was operating when it was seized. The boat departed South Korea’s southeastern port of Pohang on Aug. 1 and was scheduled to return home on Sept. 10.

South Korea called on the North to return the fishing boat and its crew quickly. However, the prospect of their quick return is being complicated because of tension over the March sinking of a South Korean warship off the western coast blamed on North Korea.

South Korea also is conducting naval drills off the western coast, including areas near the two countries’ disputed sea border. The exercises, which end Monday, were aimed at strengthening South Korea’s ability to counter any North Korean provocations.

North Korea, which has denied involvement in the sinking, warned last week it would “counter the reckless naval firing projected by the group of traitors with strong physical retaliation” and advised civilian ships to stay away from the maritime border.

Maritime incidents involving fishing boats and other commercial vessels occur from time to time between the two Koreas. While most are resolved amicably, the rival navies engaged in three deadly skirmishes near their disputed western sea border in 1999, 2002 and November last year.

Last August, North Korea freed four South Korean fishermen after detaining them for a month for illegally entering North Korean waters.

Kim Yong-hyun, an expert on North Korean affairs at Seoul’s Dongguk University, said the North may release the fishermen within a month after its investigation, since their boat appeared to have strayed accidentally into the North’s waters.

South Korea should use the issue as a lubricant to improve relations with North Korea by actively seeking their quick return,” Mr. Kim said. He also noted that North Korea should free the fishermen quickly because a prolonged detention could worsen ties with South Korea at a time when the North may need food aid from the South.

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