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Rival Koreas tense after skirmish

A clash Saturday may have aimed at undercutting soccer-host Seoul.

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The Korean peninsula is on high military alert after a 21-minute gun battle between north and south that will likely delay talks between Pyongyang and Washington.

The skirmish Saturday, in which a South Korean patrol boat was sunk and at least four South Koreans killed, came just as Seoul was wrapping up its hosting of the World Cup, which ended yesterday.

Analysts say the clash in the Yellow Sea may have reflected Northern envy at the South's pride and success in hosting the soccer championship – or Pyongyang's fears that the games, some of which were broadcast in the North, could cause further discontent in a totalitarian country already beset by severe economic troubles.

Or, observers theorize, the incident could have been a tactic to delay talks with Washington, which last week signaled it was ready to visit Pyongyang. Still another theory centers on fishing rights.

The clash certainly deals another blow to the Sunshine Policy of South Korean president Kim Dae Jung. Increasingly controversial, the policy, by which the South provides the North with funds, food, and sundry aid, while asking nothing in return, has sharply divided conservative and liberal parties here. Conservatives maintain that North Korea is a dyed-in-the-wool Stalinist state that has never, and would never, consider revising its mandate of opposing the South.

Reflecting on Saturday's incident, Lee Dong Bok, a retired member of the National Assembly and former negotiator in inter-Korean talks, said: "We have seen a pattern over and over of North Korea reverting to hostility after a quiet period. It's shortsighted in the extreme sense that North Korea would change its essential mandate. It's not equipped to do that because it is anachronistic and weak and vulnerable."

In recent years, the regime of Kim Jong Il, labeled as part of an "axis of evil" by President Bush, has used its volatility as a strategy in outside relations.

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