North Korea warned Friday that it will aggressively defend itself in disputed waters where a bloody naval clash with rival South Korea took place this week, though it tempered its rhetoric by indicating it wants better relations with Seoul and Washington.
Tuesday's clash off the western coast was the first in seven years and came ahead of a trip to Seoul next week by President Barack Obama. A senior South Korean military officer said one North Korean officer died and three others were wounded. South Korea suffered no casualties.
Friday's message _ issued by a high-ranking military officer _ follows vows to punish South Korea carried in North Korean state newspapers Thursday. The military also repeated its demand that South Korea apologize for the clash.
The divided Koreas have long been at odds over their western sea border and fought battles in the area in 1999 and 2002. The North insists that a line imposed by the U.N. command at the end of the 1950-53 Korean War be redrawn farther south, a demand rejected by South Korea.
North Korea's military also said it "will take merciless military measures to defend" its interpretation of the border "from this moment." It said South Korea would be forced to pay a heavy price for Tuesday's clash, though did not elaborate.
Despite those strong words, the message also indicated North Korea's wish to continue a thaw in relations with South Korea and the United States.
It blamed what it described as "conservative forces" in South Korea as well as its military for trying to spoil moves toward detente on the Korean peninsula.
According to the North's official Korean Central News Agency, the warning was sent to South Korea by a military officer who heads the military delegation that occasionally holds talks with South Korea's military.
South Korean officials have largely shrugged off the North's threats, saying they can deter any military moves off the coast. The country's 680,000-member military has been on guard following the skirmish, though officials said they have seen no evidence of unusual North Korean moves.
Analysts have said that while North Korea craves the kind of attention that comes with such clashes, the chance of further conflict appears unlikely as it does not want to scuttle an upcoming meeting with the U.S. _ the first under Obama's administration.
"North Korea does not want to harm the atmosphere of dialogue with the United States," said Koh Yu-hwan, a professor at Seoul's Dongguk University.
Obama's special envoy, Stephen Bosworth, is scheduled to visit Pyongyang by year's end in a mission to secure North Korea's return to six-nation nuclear disarmament negotiations, which the North walked away from earlier this year.
Obama, meanwhile, is due to arrive in Seoul on Wednesday for talks with South Korean President Lee Myung-bak on North Korea's nuclear programs. The U.S. president arrived in Japan on Friday at the start of a four-nation Asian tour.
In an interview with South Korea's Yonhap news agency published Friday, Obama called North Korea a danger, but also said the country has the opportunity to improve its standing in the international community if it gives up its nuclear weapons. He reiterated that Washington is open to direct talks with the North if they lead to a resumption of the six-party negotiations.
The two Koreas have remained technically at war since the Korean War ended with an armistice, not a peace treaty. The U.S., which has never had diplomatic relations with North Korea, stations 28,500 troops in South Korea to deter potential North Korean aggression.
Some 30 North Korean sailors are believed to have been killed and a North Korean vessel was sunk in the 1999 naval battle, while no South Koreans were killed, according to the South Korean navy.
Six south Korean sailors died and their vessel sank in 2002. The navy believes that a considerable number of North Korean sailors died.