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North Korea fires artillery again toward South

SEOUL (Reuters) - North Korea fired several artillery rounds on Thursday in the direction of a South Korean island off the peninsula, a second day of shooting near a disputed sea border that has been the site of deadly clashes in the past.

A North Korean soldier guards the banks of Yalu River near the North Korean town of Sinuiju, opposite the Chinese border city of Dandong, January 27, 2010. REUTERS/Jacky Chen

Rounds landed on the North’s side of the disputed maritime border off the west coast of the rival states, a Defense Ministry official said. The South did not return fire.

Some analysts said the North may be trying to provoke tension with U.S. military ally South Korea to drive home its demand for talks with Washington to reach a peace treaty to replace the armistice that halted the 1950-53 Korean War.

The two Koreas remain technically at war and share one of the world’s most militarized borders.

North Korea has declared a no-sail zone in the Yellow Sea waters for two months ending in late March, a sign it might be preparing to fire artillery or test launch missiles.

“They were firing at their side of the border and unlike yesterday we did not have clear visual confirmation,” the defense official said asking not to be named.

The mercurial North, which has made war threats against the South in recent weeks, has also agreed to Seoul’s calls for dialogue on the operations of a joint industrial park that provides the socialist state with hard cash.

Separately on Thursday, the North said it had captured an American who was trespassing in its northern region that borders China. In the past Pyongyang has used foreign detainees as bargaining chips.

It already holds another American, activist Robert Park, who was caught at the border last month. He said beforehand he was crossing to raise awareness about the North’s human rights abuses.

Clashes between the neighbors have been contained in recent years with impact on financial markets negligible or short-lived, but analysts said the North could further escalate tension by shooting across the sea border or firing short-range missiles.

North Korea fired about 100 artillery rounds on Wednesday and threatened to fire more as a part of a military drill. South Korea returned fire with warning shots and said the North’s move was a cause for grave concern while urging Pyongyang to stop.

South Korea’s won was down slightly after the initial reports of the firing. The main stock index was muted.

North Korea has more than 10,000 pieces of artillery aimed at the wealthy South and which could in a matter of hours destroy much of the capital Seoul, 25 miles from the border.

The firing came when President Lee Myung-bak was traveling to Davos in Switzerland for the World Economic Forum after a state visit to India.

The latest clash comes amid signals from Pyongyang it was ready to return after a year-long boycott to six-country talks on ending its atomic arms programme.

Earlier this week Pyongyang accused the South of declaring war by saying it would launch a pre-emptive strike if it had clear signs the North was preparing a nuclear attack.

Editing by Jon Herskovitz