N. Korean vessel suspected of firing on Chinese boat

By Kwang-Tae Kim, AP

SEOUL, South Korea — A North Korean patrol vessel is suspected of firing on a Chinese fishing boat plying the waters off Korea’s west coast, wounding the ship’s captain, the South Korean coast guard said Monday.

The incident occurred Saturday in disputed waters off Korea’s west coast, coast guard spokesman Park Sung-kook said by telephone from the South Korean port city of Incheon. The captain was hospitalized but his injuries were not life threatening, he said.

China is a key ally of communist North Korea and is the impoverished nation’s main donor of aid and goods. Still, North Korean patrol boats have fired on both Chinese and South Korean ships in Korean waters in the past, though the incidents rarely result in injuries.

The two Koreas, still technically at war, have a long history of disputes over their shared western waters. The coastal tensions escalated into bloody naval skirmishes in 1999 and 2002.

The incident comes as the two Koreas negotiate over when to hold military talks — their first official talks since South Korea’s new conservative, pro-U.S. government took office seven months ago — amid heightened concerns over North Korea’s push to reassemble its nuclear program.

The captain of the Chinese boat was struck by shrapnel from a shell believed fired from the North Korean vessel, another South Korean coast guard official said Monday.

“What’s clear is that we didn’t open fire,” the official said. He asked not to be named, citing department policy.

A Chinese Embassy official in Seoul said he had no immediate comment Monday.

The number of Chinese boats illegally fishing in South Korean waters has risen in recent years due to pollution and overfishing off China’s coast, the coast guard said.

Last week, a South Korean coast guard officer was killed and six others injured in a scuffle with Chinese fishermen engaged in unauthorized fishing in waters off South Korea’s south coast.

The coast guard said Monday a court had granted it formal arrest warrants for 11 Chinese fishermen who have been in custody since the incident.