SEOUL, South Korea – North Korea threatened to punish South Korea following their brief-but-bloody naval firefight, though analysts said Thursday that chances of retaliation appeared slim ahead of planned talks between the U.S. and Pyongyang.
Tuesday's battle near the disputed western sea border left one North Korean officer dead and three others wounded, according to a senior South Korean military officer. Both sides have accused the other of provoking the two-minute battle and Pyongyang has threatened consequences.
"Warmongers will be forced to pay a costly price," the North's main Rodong Sinmun newspaper said Thursday in a commentary carried by the official Korean Central News Agency. "We never utter empty words."
A North Korean navy patrol vessel is believed to have been towed by another North Korean ship to a nearby base after South Korean ships fired some 4,950 rounds, said an official with Seoul's Joint Chiefs of Staff. He asked not to be identified because of the issue's sensitivity.
Yang Moo-jin, a professor at Seoul's University of North Korean Studies, downplayed the significance of the North's threats, saying they were carried in newspaper commentaries rather than in government or military statements — which carry more weight.
The North's military issued a statement Tuesday blaming the South for the clash but has not made any threat or mention of retaliation itself.
Analysts believe a planned trip to Pyongyang by a U.S. official would make it difficult for Pyongyang to take retaliatory steps against the South anytime soon.
President Barack Obama, due to arrive in Seoul on Nov. 18 amid a regional tour, plans to send special envoy Stephen Bosworth to Pyongyang by year's end for the first direct talks with the North during his administration.
Bosworth's trip is aimed at persuading communist North Korea to return to six-nation nuclear disarmament negotiations, which Pyongyang walked away from earlier this year.
The North has long demanded one-on-one talks with the United States before committing to the stalled talks on ending its nuclear programs. The talks also include South Korea, China, Russia and Japan, and were last held in Beijing in December.
Jeung Young-tae, a North Korea expert at the government-funded Korea Institute for National Unification, said that while some kind of retaliation is possible, North Korean leader Kim Jong Il would have little to gain from doing so.
"Any escalation of the situation would not be in the interest of the Kim Jong Il regime at a time when the North is focusing on dialogue with the U.S.," he said.
Paik Hak-soon, an analyst at the private Sejong Institute think tank near Seoul, said it is hard to believe that Pyongyang would retaliate when it is seeking to improve its relations with both South Korea and the U.S.
Officials in Seoul shrugged off the North's threats, saying they can deter any aggression and will defend the disputed sea border — known as the Northern Limit Line — where the clash took place.
The line is a de facto western sea border drawn up by the U.N. command at the end of the 1950-53 Korean War. The North has long insisted it be redrawn farther south.
The Defense Ministry said Thursday that it plans to hold a meeting of top military commanders next month to review South Korea's defenses.
The battle, which South Korea's military has hailed as a victory, highlighted the wide gap in hardware between the two sides. The North Korean ship was built by China in the 1960s, the Chosun Ilbo newspaper reported.
Following the skirmish, the South's 680,000-member military went on high alert to cope with possible retaliation. South Korean media reported the country has deployed up to four destroyers and warships near the sea border — the scene of two bloody fights in 1999 and 2002.
South Korea's military said there has been no sign of suspicious military activity from North Korean troops, but news reports said the North has also placed its 1.2 million-strong army on high alert.
The two Koreas have remained technically at war since the Korean War ended with an armistice, not a peace treaty. The U.S., which has never had diplomatic relations with North Korea, stations 28,500 troops in South Korea to deter potential North Korean aggression.