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Threat of naval clash off Korean Peninsula rises

BEIJING — The potential for a naval clash off the Korean Peninsula grew Friday after North Korea scrapped a nonaggression pact with South Korea and declared as void a western sea border, warning in shrill language that the region has "reached the brink of war."

South Korea expressed regret that Pyongyang canceled all political and military accords and pledged "firm counteraction" should North Korean vessels cross a U.N.-set demarcation line on the Yellow Sea.

"We will uphold the maritime border just as we maintain the military demarcation line on land," Defense Ministry spokesman Won Tae-jae said in Seoul, according to South Korea's semi-official Yonhap news agency.

"The agreement reached between the two sides cannot be scrapped just because one side decides to scrap it," Won said.

North Korea is prone to strident outbursts to gain attention, and its actions Friday may be aimed not only at Seoul but also at Washington, where, it fears, it won't be a diplomatic priority for the new Obama administration in its early days as the Middle East seizes attention. North Korea also may seek to intimidate the South into offering more financial support.

Early on Friday, North Korea issued a statement through its official news agency that lambasted South Korean President Lee Myung-bak, a conservative who took office 11 months ago with a tough stance toward North Korea, and canceled two reconciliation accords with Seoul.

"The group of traitors has already reduced all the agreements reached between the north and the south in the past to dead documents," the agency said.

It declared void a 1992 agreement that recognizes a U.N.-set boundary line in the Yellow Sea as the maritime border between the nations. North Korea has objected to the boundary, saying that it should be set further to the south. Disputes on the Yellow Sea led North Korean and South Korean vessels to square off in bloody battles in 1999 and 2002. Shots were fired in 2004.

"The confrontation between the North and the South in the political and military fields has been put to such extremes that inter-Korean relations have reached the brink of a war," North Korea's statement added.

The boundary line in the Yellow Sea gives control of offshore islands, rich in blue crabs, to South Korea. With the spring crabbing season around the corner, a source of foreign exchange is at stake.

Tensions between North Korea and South Korea have escalated sharply since Lee took office. Lee has placed conditions on multimillion-dollar humanitarian aid to cash-starved North Korea, and has permitted private groups to launch balloons over North Korea that drop leaflets criticizing its leader, Kim Jong Il.

Significantly, Pyongyang hasn't shut down the joint industrial park in the North Korean city of Kaesong, where 90 or so South Korean factories employ 33,000 low-wage North Koreans. The Kaesong complex is an important source of scarce foreign exchange for Pyongyang.

Just a few days ago, Kim offered a positive signal on six-nation talks designed to dismantle North Korea's nuclear weapons program. Kim told a visiting Chinese envoy that he didn't "want to see tension emerge on the Korean Peninsula" and renewed a commitment to work toward a nuclear-free peninsula.

North Korea tested its first nuclear device in 2006, demonstrating a nuclear capability.

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North Korean news agency

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