SEOUL, South Korea -- North and South Korea issued competing claims Thursday to a rich crab fishing ground in the Yellow Sea, where warships from both sides have been facing off this week.
Four North Korean patrol boats and 20 fishing boats sailed back into the disputed waters early Thursday, 4 1/2 hours after six North Korean patrol boats escorting a larger fishing fleet withdrew from the area. All the boats withdrew late in the day.South Korea's military said it was tightening security and warned that the dispute could escalate into an armed clash between the two nations, still technically at war 46 years after the Korean War ended without a peace treaty.
However, Defense Minister Cho Seong-tae did not order a heightened alert status for the military, and the 37,000 American troops stationed in South Korea also remained on normal alert.
The Defense Ministry said four South Korean warships confronted the North's vessels Thursday, but both sides appeared to be exercising restraint as Seoul sought a meeting with North Korean military officials to discuss the dispute.
The North Koreans rejected the meeting, which would have been arranged by the U.N. Command, a multinational military force that monitors the armistice between the two countries. But they withdrew all their ships from the disputed area late Thursday.
The latest standoff was the third in as many days. The second confrontation, which began Wednesday, lasted 18 hours, while the first, on Tuesday, went on for 11 hours.
"Naval patrol ships of the (North) Korean People's Army have been completely controlling and containing every movement of the South Korean warships in our territorial waters," the North's official Korean Central News Agency said.
South Korea's Defense Ministry rejected the North's statement as "complete nonsense."