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Korean Military Talks Get Physical in Dispute Over Maritime Border

  • Kurt Achin

North and South Korean generals scuffled briefly on the second day of high-level military talks at the two countries' border. Tension at the talks is fueled by a decades-old dispute over an international demarcation of the sea border. VOA's Kurt Achin reports from Seoul.

Thursday's inter-Korean military meeting moved from words to physical contact when the North Korean side tried to show reporters a map detailing Pyongyang's proposal for a shared maritime zone.

A South Korean naval officer jumped up from his seat and prevented the North Korean official from showing the information, which the South deems sensitive. A brief physical scuffle and sharp verbal exchange ensued.

One of the key challenges for the military negotiators is working out how to implement agreements made by North Korean leader Kim Jong Il and South Korean President Roh Moo-hyun at their October summit.

For example, the leaders agreed to form a joint fishing and economic zone in disputed waters west of the Korean peninsula.

But the two Koreas have fought several deadly naval clashes in the area. North Korea has never accepted a United Nations-declared sea border in the area commonly known as the Northern Limit Line, or NLL.

Choi Jung-chul, a professor at South Korea's National Defense University in Seoul, says the tone of Thursday's talks shows the NLL issue still generates conflict.

Choi says he is not surprised the talks got physical. He says this is one of the most tense security issues confronting the two Koreas.

North Korean officials want the joint zone to be situated South of the NLL, in what is now recognized as fully South Korean sovereign maritime territory.

South Korea is proposing the zone straddle the NLL, encompassing waters belonging to both Koreas.

Officers from the North want details of their proposal made fully public to the media, and accuse their South Korean partners of unfairly controlling the flow of information.

Professor Choi says Pyongyang has its reasons for that.

He says North Korea is hoping to seize the initiative in the talks by demanding the South allow details of its proposals to be revealed to the public.

Those demands are a rare reversal of North Korea's usual policies, which tolerate no free speech within the country and strictly control access to its officials by international reporters.

Technically, North and South Korea remain at war, 57 years after the North's 1950 invasion of the South. This week's high-level military talks are being held in Panmunjom, the border-straddling village where a 1953 armistice halted fighting but never formally ended the war.