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Clinton Says Korea Naval Fight Won't Deter U.S. Envoy

U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton

U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton

SINGAPORE (Reuters) -- A naval skirmish between the two Koreas will not derail the Obama administration's plans to send its first envoy to Pyongyang to revive dormant nuclear talks, U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said today.

The rival Koreas exchanged gunfire for the first time in seven years on November 10. The clash took place near a disputed sea border and left a South Korean vessel pockmarked with bullet holes and a North Korean patrol ship ablaze as it retreated home.

"This does not in any way affect the decision to send Ambassador [Stephen] Bosworth. We think that this is an important step that stands on its own," Clinton told a news conference on the sidelines of an APEC meeting in Singapore.

North Korea has often used military action to force its way onto the agenda of major diplomatic events, and recently caused alarm by announcing increased production of arms-grade plutonium. Yet at the same time, it has also been seeking direct talks with Washington.

"We're obviously hoping the situation does not escalate, encouraged by the calm reaction that has been present up until now," Clinton said.

President Barack Obama is due in Japan later this week to start his first tour through Asia since taking office, and the security threat North Korea poses to the economically vital region will be high on the agenda.

The United States said on November 10 it had agreed to send Bosworth, its special envoy for North Korea, to the country to hold bilateral talks in the hopes of coaxing Pyongyang back into broader negotiations aimed at ending its nuclear arms program.

South Korea's military was on high alert for another possible incursion but there has been no suspicious activity from the North near the disputed sea border, officials said.