South Korean Navy Cham Soo-ri class patrol vessels conduct a drill in this undated photo. Another boat in the class and a North Korean patrol ship exchanged fire near the maritime border in the West Sea, Tuesday, in the first armed clash between the two Koreas in seven years.
/ Courtesy of the Navy
By Lee Tae-hoon
President Lee Myung-bak has expressed concerns over possible North Korean retaliation in response to Tuesday's inter-Korean naval clash, Defense Minister Kim Tae-young said.
During a meeting with lawmakers, Kim did not rule out the possibility that the North would seek to avenge the damage inflicted on a patrol boat that crossed the maritime border.
His remarks came after the North Korean vessel crossed the Northern Limit Line (NLL) at round 10:30 a.m., ignoring repeated warnings.
No South Korean casualties were reported, but the North's patrol boat was badly damaged during the two-minute skirmish.
Pyongyang demanded that Seoul apologize for the clash, calling it a "grave armed provocation" by the South that targeted a patrol on "routine" duty.
Rep. Seo Jong-pyo of the main opposition Democratic Party raised the possibility that the boat may have crossed the sea border without malicious intention.
He said its crew could have been seeking asylum in the South; crossed the NLL to arrest a Chinese fishing boat, which was possibly fishing illegally; or mistakenly took the warning shots as an attack.
The South Korean patrol boat fired four warning shots - in accordance with the rules of engagement - at 10:36 a.m. as the North's vessel continued to approach it.
Shortly after this final warning, the North's vessel fired some 50 rounds at the South Korean patrol boat.
Kim said 15 rounds hit the hull without causing any serious damage or causalities.
The ROK Navy ship returned fire, loosing around 100 shells and forcing the North Korean vessel to retreat into northern waters at 10:40 a.m.
This latest incident comes amid expectations that the North and the United States may soon engage in direct talks.
Pyongyang has invited U.S. special envoy Stephen Bosworth for talks aimed at ending the standoff over its nuclear weapons program. Washington was reportedly set to announce Bosworth's trip to the North soon, possibly this week.
Prime Minister Chung Un-chan downplayed the clash, saying it appeared to be accidental in origin.
But some security experts here say it could have been a deliberate attempt by the North to create leverage in negotiations at the six-party denuclearization talks.
Previously, the navies of the two Koreas exchanged fire along the NLL in 1999 and 2002, leaving scores of casualties on both sides.
The de facto sea border has always represented a potential flashpoint.
In June 1999, the two navies had their first encounter, during which seven South Korean crewmen were wounded and two North Korean warships destroyed.
Another major skirmish occurred in June 2002, in the middle of the Korea-Japan World Cup. Two North Korean patrol boats crossed the NLL and abruptly opened fired on a South Korean patrol boat, killing six South Korean sailors and wounding 19. About 30 North Koreans were presumed to have been killed in the 20-minute firefight.
Last month, the North accused the South of sending warships across the NLL, saying that the "reckless military provocation" could trigger armed clashes.