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SEOUL — Cold War tensions mounted between North and South Korea on Sunday after a deadly sea clash which the South’s top military officer warned could have become an all-out war.

A South Korean destroyer and other navy boats cruised near the disputed maritime frontier where Saturday’s gunbattle left four South Korean sailors dead, one missing and 19 wounded, many seriously, Seoul officials said.

The United States and other nations expressed concern but South Korea’s President Kim Dae Jung went ahead with a visit to Japan, despite the blow to his “Sunshine Policy” of peaceful engagement with the communist North.

Kim put the South Korean Army on high alert, but went to Sunday’s World Cup final in Japan in a bid to show the North it could not disrupt the success of the monthlong football tournament cohosted with Japan.

The two Koreas have angrily blamed each other for the incident, which senior South Korean military officials said the clash could easily have escalated into a peninsula-wide conflict.

A South Korean patrol boat was hit and sank while being towed away after the fierce 20 minute gunbattle. South Korean officials said a North Korean boat that had crossed into the South’s territory was seen being towed away in flames.

Gen. Lee Nam Shin, commander of the South’s Joint Chiefs of Staff (JCS), told a parliamentary committee, “We exercised self-restraint to stop the skirmish from escalating into an all-out war which could devastate the Korean peninsula.”

Another JCS officer, Maj. Gen. Ahn Ki Seok, said that after the South’s patrol boat was hit by gunfire, other vessels fired hundreds of shells at the North’s boat.

“It would not have been difficult for us to sink the vessel but we had to take the World Cup into consideration,” he told a press briefing. “If we had sunk the boat, North Korea would have almost certainly fired a guided missile from the coast and then it would have escalated into an all-out war.”

Ahn said South Korean experts had estimated that more than 30 North Koreans were killed in the clash. The North has admitted suffering losses but not given details.

The North has also refused demands for an apology from the South, and says the maritime border where the clash took place was illegal and should be abolished.

North Korea wants the sea border to be moved further south, which would allow it access to rich crab and fishing waters.

North Korea reiterated its demand that the sea border be abolished in a letter Sunday to the U.N. Command, South Korea’s Yonhap news agency reported.

North Korea said Sunday that South Korea had staged a surprise attack on its navy to provoke a response, damage Pyongyang’s image and undermine already strained relations during World Cup.

Few in the South doubt the incident was timed by the North to taint South Korea’s World Cup parade — a remarkable run by its soccer team and headline-hogging scenes of ebullient “Red Devil” soccer crowds.

But North Korea put it the other way around. KCNA quoted a navy spokesman as saying the South’s demand for an apology was “the height of impudence.”

Political parties and newspapers in Seoul demanded the government take strong counter measures.

The battle also caused international concern.

A top U.S. general said the battle was a clear North Korean violation of the armistice which halted, but did not officially end, the 1950-53 Korean War.

China and Japan have also expressed strong concern and called for measures to reduce tensions.

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