Amid rising tension between North and South Korea after a naval skirmish, U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton on Wednesday urged calm and said diplomatic efforts to resolve the nuclear standoff with the North would continue.
As the South placed its military on heightened alert and warned it was ready to deter any retaliation by the North, Clinton said Tuesday's incident would not affect the Obama administration's decision to send a special envoy to Pyongyang "in the near future."
Speaking on the sidelines of the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation forum in Singapore, Clinton said the envoy, Stephen Bosworth, would go to the North as planned to try to persuade the communist nation to return to stalled six-nation nuclear disarmament talks.
"We are certainly counseling calm and caution when it comes to any kind of dispute ... but at the same time we are moving ahead with our planned visit for Ambassador Bosworth," she said.
"We think that it is an important step that stands on its own," Clinton told reporters at a solo news conference.
The talks will be the first between the U.S. and North Korea since President Barack Obama took office in January. The two nations, which fought on opposite sides in the 1950-53 Korean War, do not have diplomatic relations.
"We have made the purpose and parameters of this visit clear to the North Koreans," Clinton said. "This is not a negotiation. It is an effort to pave the way toward North Korea's return to the six-party process."
North Korea quit the negotiations earlier this year in anger over international criticism of its nuclear and missile programs, but has reached out to Washington in recent months with calls for bilateral talks.
The Obama administration has said it is open to holding direct talks if they lead to a resumption of the disarmament negotiations. U.S. officials confirmed that Bosworth would most likely meet with North Korean officials before the end of the year.
The two-minute exchange of gunfire between North and South Korean warships at the Koreas' disputed maritime border reportedly left one North Korean sailor dead and three wounded. The South Korean military reported no casualties and said the North Korean ship was on fire and heavily damaged when it retreated.
Both sides blamed the other for the clash in a rich crab-fishing area off the countries' west coast, where both sides regularly accuse the other of violating the disputed border. Deadly skirmishes in the area also took place in 1999 and 2002.
Tuesday's skirmish occurred just hours before confirmation from Washington that President Barack Obama, who will be visiting Japan and South Korea in the coming days, had decided to accept the North Korean invitation. It sparked speculation that the North is trying to foment tensions to gain a negotiating advantage.
In Seoul, Defense Minister Kim Tae-young told the National Assembly on Tuesday that he believed the North may take retaliatory action, saying President Lee Myung-bak "also has such concerns."
On Wednesday, though, South Korea's presidential office said it didn't want ties with North Korea to deteriorate as a result of the skirmish. Still, several hundred protesters gathered in Seoul to vent their anger at North Korea, burning flags and pictures of North Korean leader Kim Jong Il.
Relations between the two Koreas became badly frayed after Lee took office last year with a tough line on the North, which responded by cutting off ties and threatening war.
The situation further deteriorated following nuclear and missile tests by the North this year. Recently, however, North Korea has made a series of conciliatory gestures, such as releasing South Korean and American detainees and agreeing to resume joint projects with Seoul.
Yoon Deok-min, a professor at South Korea's state-run Institute of Foreign Affairs and National Security, said the North has a track record of making provocations ahead of important negotiations.
"It is aimed at extracting concessions from the U.S. by making it seem as if hawks are pitted against doves in Pyongyang ahead of negotiations," he said.
Another analyst, Ralph Cossa, president of the Pacific Forum CSIS think tank in Honolulu, Hawaii, said North Korea could have staged the clash as a "dress rehearsal" for further provocations and might try to draw attention away from Seoul during Obama's Nov. 18-19 stop in South Korea.
Associated Press writers Jean H. Lee and Jae-soon Chang in Singapore and Kwang-tae Kim, Yewon Kang and AP photographer Jin-man Lee in Seoul contributed to this report.