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North, South Korean Warships Exchange Warning Shots

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North and South Korean warships exchanged warning shots near a disputed sea border Tuesday, days after the two sides agreed to high-level talks that many hope could improve inter-Korean relations.

Seoul defense officials say a South Korean naval ship fired a warning shot after a North Korean vessel crossed the so-called Northern Limit Line off the western coast. The North Korean ship returned fire before retreating.

The officials, who spoke anonymously, said neither ship intended to hit one another and that no injuries or damage occurred in the early Tuesday incident. They said the South's boat fired about 90 rounds in the exchange, which lasted about 10 minutes.

Such incursions are not uncommon, since North Korea has never recognized the de facto Yellow Sea border, which was drawn by the United Nations at the end of the 1950s Korean War.

But the incident raises tensions ahead of high-level talks that were agreed to after senior North Korean officials made a surprise visit to the South for the closing ceremonies of the Asian Games on Saturday.

The delegation was led by the North’s number two man Hwang Pyong So. He was joined by senior ruling party members Cho Ryong Hae and Kim Yang Gon.

During the visit, they held brief talks with South Korean officials, including Unification Minister Ryoo Kihl-jae. Afterward, they said they had agreed to resume high-level meetings that had been stalled since February.

South Korea says the reunion of families separated by the Korean War will be its top agenda item during upcoming high-level talks with North Korea. Unification Ministry spokesman Lim Byeong-chul said Monday said that Seoul believes the matter is a “pressing and desperate issue.”

The talks are set to begin sometime later this month or in early November.

In addition to the family reunions, the two sides have agreed to talk about the South's sanctions on North Korea, as well as the creation of a peace park and Seoul’s assistance to the impoverished country.

Pyongyang has demanded the lifting of the so-called May 24 sanctions imposed by Seoul in 2010 after the sinking of the South Korean naval corvette Cheonan in waters near the disputed western sea border.

The sanctions ban nearly all inter-Korean economic activities except those inside the Kaesong Industrial Complex.

Unification spokesman Lim reiterated Seoul’s initial stance that North Korea must first take “responsible and logical steps” in order for the South to lift the sanctions.

South Korea believes the sinking of the navy ship, which claimed 46 lives, was caused by a North Korean torpedo attack. North Korea has repeatedly denied any involvement in the incident.

Jee Abbey Lee contributed to this report, which was produced in collaboration with the VOA Korean service.

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