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North Korea congratulates Seoul

Updated: Monday July 01, 2002 02:47 a.m. ET

SEOUL, South Korea (AP) -- Setting aside bitterness over a bloody naval clash, North Korea congratulated South Korea on its success in reaching the semifinals in the soccer World Cup, the communist country's media reported.

The chief of North Korea's Football Association, Ri Gwang Gun, lauded South Korea's spectacular run in the World Cup in a letter sent to his South Korean counterpart, Chung Mong-joon, the North's Korean Central News Agency reported Sunday.

The letter compared South Korea's unexpected advance to the semifinals of world soccer's showcase tournament to the success of North Korea in the 1966 World Cup in England, in which the North Koreans reached the quarterfinals after upsetting Italy.

Both victories showed "fellow countrymen that they can defeat any strong team in the world and emerge the strongest if they have a will," KCNA quoted the letter as saying.

"This, at the same time, instills into the nation the confidence that they can achieve the independent reunification of the country more smoothly if they pool efforts and wisdom."

South Korea, which had never won a game in five previous World Cups, topped its group after beating Poland and Portugal and tying the United States.

In the knockout rounds, the South Koreans also beat Italy and Spain to reach the final four, where they lost to Germany. That made South Korea the first Asian team to reach the semifinals at a World Cup.

North Korea stayed away from this year's World Cup. It did not take part in a regional qualifying event and rejected repeated South Korean offers to play host to one or two matches.

Sunday's conciliatory gesture by North Korean came a day after the navies of the two rival countries fought a gun battle near their western sea border.

One South Korean patrol boat sank, killing four sailors and wounding 19 others. One was listed as missing. South Korean military officials believed that North Korea lost about 30 sailors.

South Korea blamed North Korea for the clash, while North Korea claimed that South Korean sailors fired first.

The Koreas were divided in 1945. The 1950-53 Korean War ended in a fragile armistice, not in a permanent peace treaty. Today they share the world's most heavily armed border, with nearly 2 million troops deployed on both sides.

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