North and South Korean Navies Exchange Fire before Obama’s Visit

The North and South Korean navies exchanged fire in disputed waters in the Yellow Sea for the third time in the past decade. Meanwhile, U.S. President Barack Obama is just a week away from his first visit to South Korea. According to the South Korean joint chiefs of staff, a North Korean gunboat ventured about a mile into what Seoul claims is its territorial waters. The South Koreans issued verbal warnings and then fired warning shots. In response, the North Korean boat peppered the South's patrol vessel with gunfire. The South Koreans returned fire and, they claimed, badly damaged the North Korean boat. Unlike the most recent naval clash — in which six South Korean sailors were killed in 2002 — Seoul said there were no casualties. It was unclear whether any North Korean sailors were killed or injured, TIME reports.

It was also reported, the United States will announce in the next few days whether it will start direct talks with the North, which could kickstart a fresh round of talks with regional powers on nuclear disarmament, a U.S. official said earlier.

denounced what it said was an incursion by a North Korean patrol vessel into its territorial waters in the Yellow Sea that sparked a brief firefight near the spot where the two Koreas have had two deadly conflicts in the past decade.

"We've seen the reports. Obviously we don't find any tensions of this nature productive," Pentagon spokesman Bryan Whitman said, adding that there was no American involvement.

The White House said it hoped there would be no further North Korean sea action that would be seen as escalation, Reuters reports.

News agencies also report, for more than a year, North Korea's state media has issued an increased volume of criticism about the maritime border of the west coast of the two countries. It was drawn up in the 1953 ceasefire that ended the Korean War. The North objects to the placement of the border, which cuts through water that is plentiful in fish and crab, and the South's possession of five islands that are just a few miles south of it.

Analysts viewed the rhetoric as part of a series of provocative-appearing actions by North Korea that were intended to set the stage for new negotiations with South Korea and other countries for security and economic concessions.

The last time the two militaries traded gunfire at sea was in June 2002, when a North Korean patrol boat crossed the maritime border and fired against two South Korean patrol boats, sinking one of them and killing six South Korean sailors and injuring 19 others.

In a larger skirmish that lasted for several days in June 1999, South Korea sank two North Korean warships, killing an unknown number of sailors. Seven South Korean sailors were injured in the fighting, The Wall Street Journal reports.

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