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Uptight neighbor is vexing to S. Korea

SEOUL, South Korea -- The gunsmoke over the high seas may be gone, but there is growing apprehension here that as relations with the North become more varied, they will also become more vexing.

As they watched a push-and-shove naval match in the Yellow Sea erupt into a firefight last week, many South Koreans renewed their belief that even as relations thaw across the Korean peninsula, North Korea remains an irascible, secretive, terrorist neighbor.While North Korea blames the South for an exchange of fire on Tuesday in which South Korean naval vessels sank a Northern torpedo boat, South Koreans are certain that the incident was initiated by the North and that the North was the first to open fire. The confrontation left at least 20 North Koreans dead.

Two days later, President Kim Dae-jung reaffirmed his "sunshine policy" of expanded contacts with North Korea. He also ordered resumption of an aid shipment of 14,000 tons of fertilizer to the North.

Thus, relations with the North seem increasingly fraught with contradiction, as engagement and confrontation play out simultaneously. Lee Sei-ki, a former minister of unification, expressed the mood when he spoke to the National Assembly this week on the rising tourism to North Korea in the seas to the east of South Korea.

The high seas shootout erupted after a nine-day standoff in disputed waters in the Yellow Sea, where North Korean fishing vessels were catching crab just south of the "northern limit line," the customary line of demarcation separating the seas of the two Koreas.

The North does not recognize the line and has often sent ships south of it.