Korean firefight turns into verbal clash

North demands apology after South sinks warship

each says other fired first


TOKYO -- An early morning firefight yesterday in disputed waters in the Yellow Sea receded into a verbal clash, as North Korea demanded an apology and lashed out at South Korea for sinking one of its warships.

Each side contended that the other fired first. But the result is not disputed: South Korean ships fired on and hit a North Korean torpedo boat, causing it to catch fire and sink. All 17 North Koreans aboard were killed, said the South Korean state-owned Yonhap News Agency.

Five North Korean patrol boats were also damaged in the fight, possibly the fiercest naval clash since the Korean War ended in 1953. Two South Korean boats suffered mild damage, and seven South Koreans were seriously hurt.

The incident is sure to put further strains on North Korea's relations with the South and with the rest of the world. It also occurs at an awkward moment, as North Korea considers a U.S. plan, devised by former Defense Secretary William J. Perry, that could lead to a significant expansion of relations between North Korea and the West, in exchange for concessions including an agreement that the North end its long-range missile program.

The clash may also be a setback for South Korean President Kim Dae Jung, who has been pushing his "sunshine policy" of engagement with the North.

"We interpret North Korea's armed provocation as a very significant act," said Hwang Won Tak, Kim's top security adviser.

Military experts said that while there were risks of more skirmishes, yesterday's confrontation was not likely to intensify.

"The chances of today's incident escalating into a full-scale battle is low," said Suh Choo Suk, an analyst at the Korea Institute for Defense Analyses.

Others warned that there were risks of miscalculation and that the situation was volatile.

"This is more serious than before," said a South Korean government official who works on North Korean matters and refused to be identified by name. "It's a buffer zone, they are fighting with each other, and there are battleships. This is how wars begin."

The confrontation began June 7, when North Korean naval vessels escorted fishing boats south of the "northern limit line," the customary line of demarcation between the two Koreas in the Yellow Sea. The North does not recognize the line and periodically sends ships south of it, but they normally retreat when ordered back by South Korean patrol boats.

This time, the North Korean vessels held their ground. On Friday, the South began to ram the North Korean boats to drive them north again. Yesterday was the first time there was gunfire.

North Korea's official news agency said a dozen South Korean warships took part in yesterday's clash. They fired about 150 shells and more than 7,000 machine-gun bullets, the news agency reported.

Talks were held yesterday at the border village of Panmunjom between North Korea and the United Nations Command, beginning just moments after news of the sinking North Korean ship reached negotiators. The United Nations requested that both sides withdraw their ships from the disputed waters, but no agreement was reached and discussions ended after 90 minutes without any plans to resume.

"The South Koreans must immediately apologize for the serious consequences of their armed provocations," said a statement issued by the North Korea news agency. "They must not run amok, clearly mindful that if military provocations are continued, they will meet a thousandfold retaliatory blow."

Pub Date: 6/16/99

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