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Report Calls for Talks on Korean Maritime Boundary

A South Korean goverment ship (R) sails by Navy MSB (Movement Sea Base) off the South Korea-controlled island of Yeonpyeong near the disputed waters of the Yellow Sea, 22 Dec 2010

A South Korean goverment ship (R) sails by Navy MSB (Movement Sea Base) off the South Korea-controlled island of Yeonpyeong near the disputed waters of the Yellow Sea, 22 Dec 2010

An international group dedicated to preventing conflict warns of the risk of a wider conflict on the Korean peninsula. The report comes a month after an exchange of artillery fire that left four South Koreans dead.

The International Crisis Group is raising an alarm about the dispute over the maritime boundary between North and South Korea as Pyongyang appears to be preparing for a leadership transition. ICG says the volatile combination requires urgent measures to reduce the possibility of all-out war.

In a new report the group urges Pyongyang and Seoul to accept international arbitration on the dispute. North Korea does not recognize the Northern Limit Line in the Yellow Sea off the west coast. It was drawn by a U.S. commander in 1953 at the end of the Korean War.

Daniel Pinkston is the Northeast Asia deputy project director for the International Crisis Group. He acknowledges that right now, South Korea will be reluctant to negotiate a change in the boundary.

"It would be difficult politically in the South because it would almost certainly require what would appear to be concessions. And when you are talking about boundaries it appears to be a zero sum game," said Pinkston. "In the context of North Korea's recent behavior it would be very, very unpopular."

North Korea shelled Yeonpyeong island a month ago, killing South Koreans. It said it was responding to South Korean artillery.

South Korea has responded with a series of military exercises, including artillery training Monday on Yeonpyeong, and large war games near the land border on Thursday.

North Korea scholars speculate Pyongyang is raising tension to bolster the image of heir apparent Kim Jong Un. He is the son of leader Kim Jong Il.

The ICG's Pinkston says Washington and Beijing need to exercise their influence on Seoul and Pyongyang, but warns it may not help.

"Even though influence might be strong, it is not absolute. And, at the end of the day, Pyongyang and Seoul will do what it is in their national interests, as they define it," he said. "So we can't expect, China, for example, to simply flip a switch, and as people say, rein in Pyongyang. There are limits to their influence as there are limits to U.S. influence in Seoul."

Tensions have been rising since March when a South Korean warship in the Yellow Sea exploded and sank. Pyongyang rejects an international investigation that said the Cheonan was hit by a North Korean torpedo, killing 46 of the crew.

A former U.S. diplomat who visited Pyongyang this month calls the Korean peninsula a tinderbox.

Bill Richardson, the governor of the U.S. state of New Mexico told VOA's Korean Service that diplomacy is the only way out of danger.

"The situation is so, so, tense that there's got to be some kind of diplomat movement, a special envoy from the United Nations. China needs to get more engaged," said Richardson. "Eventually the six-party talks have to re-convene and let North Korea demonstrate that they're serious about their behavior and about negotiating."

Richardson says he has briefed U.S. officials about his visit and the concessions Pyongyang offered concerning its nuclear programs.

Richardson says the North Koreans told him they are ready to allow international inspections of their nuclear facilities and are willing to sell a stockpile of nuclear fuel rods that could be used to make plutonium bombs.

The White House says there is no point in returning to multi-national discussions until Pyongyang stops acting belligerently and makes good on promises to give up its nuclear weapons programs.

The North walked out of the six-nation talks in 2009.