September 7, 2009 / 9:28 AM / 10 years ago

South Korea protests North's deadly water surge

(Adds North Korea’s reaction, paragraph 4-5)

By Jack Kim

SEOUL, Sept 7 (Reuters) - South Korea protested to North Korea on Monday about a sudden release of water into a river flowing across their border that swept away six people in the South in a flash flood a day earlier.

The incident could cast a chill over ties that have warmed between the rivals in the past month with North Korea reaching out to the South to restore business and tourism ventures severed for about a year due to political bickering. [ID:nSP449784]

The bodies of three of the six were recovered on Monday, a provincial rescue official said. The rest are also presumed drowned.

North Korea moved quickly to ease tension by responding within hours to the South’s call for information by saying that it released the water because of a build-up along one of its dams, the South’s Unification Ministry said.

"North Korea will notify the South when we release a mass of water to prevent damage downstream of the Imjin River," the North’s statement said, according to the ministry.

The six who went missing, including a child, were camping on the banks of the Imjin River and were caught in a surge of water. The river starts in the North and ends in the South to the northwest of Seoul.

"At this point, we still wouldn’t quite call it a water assault," Defence Ministry spokesman Won Tae-jae told a briefing ahead of the North’s statement. "There has to be intention present for us to be able to do that."

South Korea for years has worried about dams the North has built along rivers that flow across the border fearing its communist neighbour could use flood waters as a weapon to attack.

The North has built several dams on the Imjin River, a major waterway, including one a few kilometres north of the heavily armed border between the two states who have yet to sign a formal peace treaty to end the 1950-53 Korean War.

South Korea has long sought the North’s cooperation in flood control and setting up warning systems but Pyongyang has been reluctant to join.

The North has failed to notify the South ahead of releasing water on several previous occasions, resulting in flood damage in the South.

North Korea has claimed its dams on the Imjin are designed to release water automatically when they reach a certain threshold, the Unification Ministry said. (Additional reporting by Cheon Jong-woo; Editing by Jon Herskovitz)

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