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North, South Korea Exchange Fire Near Sea Border

A South Korean naval base near the two countries' Western sea border.
(RFE/RL) -- North and South Korea today exchanged heavy artillery fire along their disputed western sea border.

Yonhap news agency reports that coastal batteries from the North sent volleys of fire aimed southwards without previous warning, while the South responded with a bigger barrage toward the North.

South Korea's Defense Ministry spokesman Won Tae-jae expressed "grave concern" at the communist North's action. "We want to express grave concern over the incident that resulted from the North's illegal act that unnecessarily creates tension with live artillery fire,” Won said. “We also urge them to stop all these activities immediately."

The North's official media later claimed the firing had been part of an annual military drill. According to state television, "artillery units of the Korean People's Army staged an annual artillery live-shell firing drill in the waters of the West Sea of Korea.”

All the rounds landed at sea, with the North's shells falling on its own side of the border. No injuries or damage were reported from the exchange, leading to speculation as to the North's motives in staging the incident.

South Korea’s Unification Ministry spokeswoman Lee Jong-joo noted that the North recently announced a closed zone in the western waters.

"We have confirmed that North Korea declared a no-sail zone in the west sea waters from January 25th to March 29th. The government is keeping an eye on the North Korean army's movement, their intention and our future response to it," Lee said.

Analysts say this closure could be an indication that the North is planning to conduct missile tests or other military exercises there.

Or, in the peculiar language which has developed between North and South Korea, it could mean that the North is ready to return to six-country talks on the North's nuclear activities, which Pyongyang has boycotted for the past year. Such a concession would require a show of strength beforehand.

Clashes along the disputed western sea border take place periodically. Navy ships of the two Koreas fought a gun battle in November that left one North Korean sailor dead and three others wounded. They engaged in similar bloody skirmishes in 1999 and 2002.

In the wake of the latest incident, South Korean presidential secretary Chung Chung-kil convened an emergency meeting of security officials in Seoul on behalf of President Lee Myung-bak, who is away on a state visit to India. Lee was informed of the incident.