TWO KOREAS AGREE TO REDUCE TENSIONS THEN CLASH AT SEA


2004.06.04
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SEOUL, June 4�North and South Korea became embroiled in a maritime dispute just hours after a team of military negotiators signed a historic agreement to reduce tensions along their common border, while a fresh group of North Koreans has succeeded in defecting in Beijing, RFA's Korean service reports.

Pyongyang's official Korean Central News Agency (KCNA) accused South Korea of sending navy ships into North Korean waters to drive away fishing boats of the Communist state earlier Friday.

"The South Korean army Friday committed such military provocations as threatening peaceable fishing boats of the North side by illegally infiltrating warships deep into the territorial waters of the North side in the West Sea," KCNA quoted military sources as saying.

"At around 08:50 Friday the South Korean army infiltrated three warships deep into the territorial waters [and] repeatedly threatened over a loudspeaker peaceable fishing boats of the North side in their normal fishing operation that it would fire at them if they did not go back," the agency said.

Seoul's Joint Chiefs of Staff office rejected the allegations, saying that North Korean vessels had violated South Korean terroritial waters.

The war of words erupted shortly after the two sides took a big step towards easing tensions, agreeing on a range of measures to prevent border clashes and deciding to stop propaganda broadcasts.

The measures reflected a thaw between the armed forces of the countries, which are technically still at war, and included ways to avoid accidental clashes in the disputed western sea border. Naval skirmishes in the fishing grounds off the western coast during the May-June crab season have in past years disrupted rapprochement in the region.

Measures included setting up a telephone hotline, sharing a radio frequency, using joint signaling systems and exchanging information on illicit fishing in the area from June 15.

The Northern Limit Line, drawn up by U.S.-led allies at the end of the 1950-53 Korean War, has been a source of naval disputes in the West Sea as North Korea has never recognized the de facto maritime border.

At the latest high-level military talks, the North repeated a demand to redraw the disputed sea border before backing down as the South flatly rejected the demand, Seoul officials said.

The two sides also agreed to ease tensions along their 248-km (154-mile) land border by mid-August, stopping loudspeaker broadcasts, and dismantling propaganda signboards aimed at promoting defections.

Earlier in the week, five North Koreans sought political asylum at the German Embassy after climbing the walls of a German government school in the Chinese capital.

Pharmaceutical plant worker Rhee Pil-sung, farm worker Rhee Kyu-cheol, factory worker Yun Byung-han, farm propaganda worker Kim Soon-ok, the only female, and Chang Myong-kyu, a miner, had been admitted to the German Embassy after scaling the walls of the school in the early hours of Tuesday morning, German doctor and activist Norbert Vollertsen was quoted by Agence France-Presse as saying.

Vollertsen said the operation Tuesday was coordinated by a "Mr. Moon" and an American NGO. "We expect them to be released to South Korea soon," said Vollertsen, a doctor who was expelled in December 2000 from North Korea for publicly denouncing the regime.

As many as 300,000 North Koreans are believed to live in hiding in China, where they frequently suffer abuse and exploitation.

Under a U.N. refugee convention, China is obliged to not force defectors back to North Korea, where they face punishment, torture, and humiliation, according to human rights observers. The punishment for defecting is three years in a labor camp and can lead to torture and execution, both for the defectors and their families. #####

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