North, South Korea clash at sea

North Korea sinks South Korean boat, killing four sailors and jeopardizing reconciliation efforts between the rival states

A North Korean navy boat sank a South Korean patrol vessel on Saturday, killing at least four sailors and jeopardizing reconciliation efforts between the rival states.

Each side blamed the other for starting the 21-minute battle that ended when the South Korean boat sank in the Yellow Sea.

At least four South Korean sailors were killed and another 19 injured. There was no immediate word on North Korean casualties or damage.

South Korea scrambled a squadron of fighter jets to patrol the area and ordered a battleship to move closer.

It was the worst battle in three years between forces from the two Koreas, and represents a setback to the South's President Kim Dae-jung attempts to improve relations with the insular, Communist North what's commonly called his "sunshine" policy.

Kim won the Nobel Peace Prize in 2000 for his efforts at engagement and reconciliation with the North.

Blaming the North Korean boat for crossing the maritime border on Saturday, South Korean Defence Minister Kim Dong-shin demanded an apology and punishment for those responsible for the incident.

North Korean state-run media, however, said the incident was started when a boat from the South entered the North's territorial waters.

South Korea said two navy boats from the North and an unknown number of fishing boats intruded up to five kilometres, ignoring repeated warnings to retreat.

A speedboat with 27 sailors on board was hit with heavy-calibre fire, caught fire and sank when two South Korean boats tried to repel the North's warships.

Prospects for renewed dialogue between North Korea and the United States could be damaged by the battle. A U.S. State Department official last week proposed talks could resume in July in Pyongyang. The Pentagon has 37,000 soldiers stationed in South Korea.

On Saturday, Washington condemned North Korea's "grave provocation" against the South.

The Korean peninsula was divided in 1945 at the end of the Second World War. The Korean War ended in 1953 with an armistice not a peace treaty without changing the border between the communist North and the South.

South Korea often accuses the North of incursions across the maritime border, which is not clearly marked. There have been several such accusations in recent weeks.

In 1999, a series of border violations touched off the first naval battle between the countries since the Korean War. One ship from the North sank, killing 30 sailors, the South said.