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South, North Korea clash at sea

 Survivor Lee Hae-young talks to reporters at the military hospital in Sungnam, south of Seoul.
Survivor Lee Hae-young talks to reporters at the military hospital in Sungnam, south of Seoul.  

SEOUL, South Korea (CNN) -- South Korea's military is on a heightened state of alert after a gunbattle with North Korean patrol ships killed at least four of its sailors and wounded 19 others.

Defense ministry spokesman Lt. Gen. Lee Sang-Hee said one South Korean sailor was missing. Seven of the wounded sailors were reported in very serious condition, he said.

The sporadic gunfight caused one South Korean speedboat to catch fire and sink while it was being towed, Lee said. A North Korean vessel also caught fire and is believed to have been destroyed.

Through its central news agency, North Korea blamed the South for starting the incident, saying its forces acted in self-defense.

South Korea said its patrol boats noticed one North Korean boat venture past the sea border off the west coast of the Korean peninsula shortly before 10 a.m. local time and warned it to turn back, Lee said.

The navy battle is the most serious border clash in three years, CNN Seoul Bureau Chief Sohn Jie-Ae reports.
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North-South Korean naval incidents since 1998 

About 30 minutes later, several North Korean fishing and patrol boats had emerged and began firing at the patrol boats, according to the South Korean defense ministry.

The South Korean army considers the incident to be a "clear violation" of its armed truce with North Korea.

"We are warning North Korea that all the responsibility is on them and we will set up a government-level counterplan and respond," Lee said.

Shortly after the incident, South Korean President Kim Dae-Jung held an emergency national security council meeting to discuss Seoul's response to the incident.

After the meeting, South Korea's national security adviser quoted Kim as saying he could not condone such acts that heighten tensions on the Korean peninsula.

Series of incursions

The two Koreas dispute the exact location of the sea border between their countries.

Saturday's clash followed a recent series of incursions by North Korean navy ships into South Korean waters. On Friday, two North Korean patrol boats briefly crossed the border -- the tenth such violation this year. (Timeline of incidents)

In June 1999, several border violations by North Korean ships sparked the first naval clash between the two Koreas since the 1950-53 Korean War.

A North Korean torpedo boat was sunk and two other North Korean vessels seriously damaged in the fierce battle. About 30 North Korean sailors were believed killed.

South and North Korea have been divided since the 1950-53 Korean War and are still technically at war.

It is unclear how the latest incident will affect the prospects for a revival of suspended daiglogue between North Korea and the United States.

A U.S. State Department official proposed on Thursday for a resumption of talks in Pyongyang in July. (Full story)

-- CNN Seoul Bureau Chief Sohn Jie-Ae contributed to this report




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