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S.Korea offers to open waterway to N.Korean ships

In a major conciliatory gesture, South Korea said on Sunday it will open ...

SEOUL: In a major conciliatory gesture, South Korea said on Sunday it will open a key waterway to North Korean commercial ships if they seek advance permission to pass through it.

There was no immediate North Korean response.

The gesture reflects reduced tension on the divided Korean Peninsula following a historic inter-Korea summit a year ago. The summit opened the way for wide-ranging exchanges between the two Korean states.

The decision came hours after the Seoul government allowed three North Korean commercial cargo vessels to sail out of the narrow channel between South Korea's mainland and its southernmost island of Jeju after violating those South Korean territorial waters for more than eight hours over the weekend.

"The safe passage of the North Korean ships this time is a one-time decision. To prevent the recurrence of similar incidents, the North should make prior notification or seek permission," said Brig. Gen. Hwang Eui-don, a spokesman for the Defence Ministry.

Hwang said the offer was made at a National Security Council meeting presided over by Unification Minister Lim Dong-won. Other participants included Defence Minister Kim Dong-shin and Foreign Minister Han Seung-soo.

The decision applies only to the channel off Jeju. Other waters will remain off limits, Hwang said.

The channel is now open to all foreign ships except those from North Korea. It is a shortcut for vessels sailing around the southern part of the peninsula on their way to and from Japan or the eastern and western regions of North Korea.

The weekend violations by North Korean commercial vessels were the first of their kind. South Korea lodged a protest with North Korea through the US-led United Nations Command.

The incidents occurred in waters leading to the channel, far from the heavily guarded border with North Korea.

The Koreas' 1950-53 war ended in an armistice, not in a peace treaty. They often accuse each other of naval violations of their territorial waters, but no previous cases of violations by commercial ships have been reported.

The Korean Peninsula was partitioned into the communist North and the pro-Western South in 1945.

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