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North Korea sailors killed when ship sinks during 'combat duties'

SEOUL (Reuters) - At least 19 North Korean sailors were killed when a naval vessel sank during "combat duties" off the east coast last month, state media said, a rare admission by the impoverished and reclusive country.

South Korean media said the ship sank during a drill killing "scores".

Photos released by North Korea's KCNA state news agency showed leader Kim Jong Un laying flowers at the foot of a memorial to the dead, encircled by at least 19 graves emblazoned with the faces of the sailors.

"Submarine chaser No. 233 fell while performing combat duties in mid-October," KCNA said.

The article did not specify what operation it was undertaking. A version of the article appeared with photos on the front page of the Rodong Sinmun, the official newspaper for the ruling Korean Workers' Party, underscoring what it described as Kim's personal attention to the sinking.

Information in North Korea is strictly controlled, and accidents are rarely publicly admitted or closely covered by state media.

North Korean official media did not say how many died in the accident, but said that Kim had taken "measures to find all their bodies", suggesting a high death doll.

South Korea's Choson Ilbo newspaper said the ship sank during a drill, killing scores of sailors, and that two vessels were involved, quoting an unnamed military source.

The two Koreas remain technically at war since the 1950-53 conflict ended in a truce rather than a peace treaty. North Korea conducted its third nuclear test this year in defiance of U.N. resolutions, drawing condemnation from around the world.

Pyongyang was blamed for sinking a South Korean navy ship in 2010 that killed 46 sailors and in the same year it shelled a South Korean island.

(Reporting By James Pearson and Ju-min Park; Editing by Nick Macfie)

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