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North and South Korean Warships Exchange Fire

South Korean naval ships after they were put on alert at this naval wharf in Incheon.

South Korean naval ships after they were put on alert at this naval wharf in Incheon.

(RFE/RL) -- Warships from North and South Korea exchanged fire off the west coast of the Korean Peninsula today.

South Korean officials say a North Korean patrol boat crossed the countries' disputed sea border, prompting a naval vessel from the South to fire warning shots. The North Korean ship then opened fire.

The brief encounter left the South Korean patrol boat peppered with holes, and the North's vessel ablaze and apparently badly damaged.

Officials in Seoul say the incident was unusual in that the North's boat persisted in sailing deeper into Southern-controlled waters, even after the South Koreans fired warning shots.

"We sent warning messages to them twice before they crossed [the demarcation line] and three times after they crossed it," Brigadier General Lee Ki-sik of the South Korean Joint Chiefs of Staff explained at a news briefing in Seoul.

The Northern boat replied by firing directly at the other boat, and the battle ensued. Seoul says none of its sailors was injured, but it's not clear whether there were casualties on the other side.

After being set afire, the Northern vessel turned away and headed toward home.

This was the first incident between naval vessels of the two Koreas in the Yellow Sea for seven years.

The last clash, in 2002, involved bigger ships and cost the lives of six crewmen of a South Korean frigate, which was sunk, and an estimated 13 North Koreans.

Deliberately Staged?

Given the alleged persistence of the North's patrol boat in intruding into disputed waters, there's some speculation in Seoul that the incursion was deliberately staged.

U.S. President Barack Obama begins his first trip as president to East Asia in two days, and some analysts believe the communist North may be trying to attract the American leader's attention. His itinerary includes Seoul.

It's a well-tested tactic of the secretive communist regime in Pyongyang to raise tensions on the Korean Peninsula when it wants to gain something diplomatically.

Judged by this policy, 2009 has been a dramatic year for the North, which has repeatedly baffled and outraged the international community by its actions. It quit the six-nation talks on ending its nuclear program, restarted its nuclear facilities, carried out a nuclear test, and test-fired a long-range rocket and a series of ballistic missiles.

It has long sought above all to hold direct one-to-one talks with the United States, and the word from Washington is that this will happen.

There's been no official announcement yet, but officials say Obama has decided to accept an offer by North Korea to send a special envoy to Pyongyang for direct talks on nuclear issues.

He is named as Stephen Bosworth, and the administration hopes Bosworth's meeting would lead the North Koreans to return to the six-party talks with the U.S., Russia, China, Japan, and South Korea.

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