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World - Asia/Pacific

South Korean ships sink North Korean patrol boat

June 15, 1999
Web posted at: 4:36 a.m. EDT (0836 GMT)

SEOUL, South Korea (CNN) -- South Korean warships early Tuesday sank a North Korean patrol boat and heavily damaged another during a 10-minute exchange of gunfire in contested waters in the Yellow Sea, South Korea's Defense Ministry said.

The firefight dramatically escalated an eight-day standoff between the rival Koreas in a disputed fishing zone. Seoul has issued a heightened state of alert and ordered all South Korean ships in the area, including fishing vessels, to return to port.

According to a spokesman for South Korean President Kim Dae-jung, the president was aware of the situation and has said the military should "act coolly" to the event.

Officials with the Defense Ministry and the Joint Chiefs of Staff in Seoul said three North Korean torpedo boats and two patrol boats crossed into the disputed waters, escorting a group of fishing boats, and that high-speed South Korean patrol boats approached the warships.

Two South Korean patrol boats twice tried to ram and repel the two northern patrol boats before shots were exchanged.

Injuries reported

South Korean Defense Ministry officials said the North Korean ships fired first and South Korean ships returned fire. The incident began around 9:25 a.m. local time (8:25 p.m. Monday EDT) and lasted 10 minutes.

Seoul officials said one of the North Korean patrol boats sank and another was severely damaged, taking in water. The torpedo boats retreated to the North, including one that caught fire, the officials said.

The South Korean Defense Ministry said seven of its sailors were slightly injured in the gunbattle.

The exchange erupted shortly before North Korean officials began talks with officers of the U.N. Command in the truce border village of Panmunjom to discuss the tense military standoff.

A spokesman for the U.N. Command told CNN the talks lasted about 90 minutes and were carried out in a professional manner.

During the meeting, he said the U.N. Command expressed concerns the intrusions could further escalate tensions in the peninsula and recommended that both sides withdraw to the U.N.-recognized sea border.

Meanwhile, South Korea will participate in vice-ministerial talks with North Korea in Beijing on Monday despite the clash, a senior aide to Kim said on Tuesday.

"South Korea will proceed with the planned vice-ministerial talks," Hwang Won-tak, senior secretary to the president for foreign policy and national security, told reporters after an emergency meeting of the National Security Council.

Crab season

South Korea says Northern naval vessels recently have crossed into southern waters daily -- and last Friday South Korean naval vessels rammed four North Korean patrol boats in the disputed zone, a rich crab fishing ground.

It is not uncommon for North Korean patrol boats to be in the waters during crab-catching season, but the patrol boats typically don't enter the water as frequently or as numerous as in recent days.

In Washington, Clinton administration officials said they are "very concerned" about the recent developments and they're checking into the reports. The United States has about 37,000 troops in South Korea.

The buffer zone lies just south of the 38th parallel, the border defined between communist North Korea and the capitalist South. North Korea, however, refuses to recognize the buffer zone.



RELATED STORIES:
Sea standoff between Koreas in 5th day
June 12, 1999
South Korea denies warship entered North Korean territory
June 7, 1999
South Korea wants to keep dialogue with North Korea
March 21, 1999
South Korea's Kim offers to restore ties with North Korea
February 24, 1999

RELATED SITES:
North Korea Report
Welcome to the Korean Embassy, Washington DC
Welcome to Korea(South Korean Government Site in Korean and English)
North Korea: Politics & Government (University of Oregon)
South Korea : Government (Asiaco)
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