Koreas Exchange Fire in West Sea Skirmish

11 11 2009

(Daily NK) NNL_MMDLOn the 10th November 2009, the North Korean patrol vessel crossed the NLL at 11:27AM at a point 11.3 kilometers off the east coast of Daecheong Island, which lies in South Korean territorial waters just 2.2 kilometers from North Korea on the west side of the peninsula.

According to the briefing, the South Koreans broadcast two warning messages between 11:22 and 11:25. However, the North’s vessel continued to advance southwards and so, between 11:28 and 11:31, two more messages were sent, instructing the North Koreans that, “Your vessel is continuing to violate our border despite our warnings, and this is causing tensions to rise. If you do not change course, we will open fire.”

The North Korean vessel apparently did not change direction, so at 11:36 the South Korean naval vessel fired warning shots across its bow. At 11:37, the North fired approximately 50 shots at the South Korean vessel, and the South simultaneously returned fire with around 100 shots from a 40mm cannon. The battle lasted for approximately two minutes, until the North Korean patrol vessel went back across the NLL at 11:40 after suffering “considerable” damage.

Yonhap News reports that this skirmish is the first for seven years. In previous clashes, 30 North Koreans were killed in 1999, while 19 navy personnel from both sides were killed in a 2002 battle which lasted for more than half an hour. North Korea officially disputes the location of the NLL, which was drawn on a unilateral basis by the UN forces at the culmination of the Korean War. North Korea officially adheres to a more southerly line, a line which would, if enforced, put Daecheong Island and neighboring Baekryeong Island north of its maritime jurisdiction.

South Korean Prime Minister Chung Un-chan told lawmakers during a televised parliamentary session that the North Korean boat returned across the border while “wrapped in flames.” He also said the incident was “accidental.” President Lee Myung-bak convened an emergency national security meeting, calling for “calm” in dealing with the situation. “The president instructed the military to react decisively, yet calmly to make sure the situation does not further deteriorate,” Lee Dong-kwan, a presidential aide, said in a release.

The South Korean Navy sounded a warning twice before the North Koreans crossed the NLL — a de facto border drawn at the end of the Korean War — and three times afterward, according to Lee Ki-shik. The naval boats were a little over 3km away from each other when they exchanged fire, Lee said, stressing the South Korean Navy followed standard operating procedure before the shooting erupted.

The North’s Korean People’s Army said in a statement released through official media that a “group of warships of the South Korean forces hastily took to flight” after violating the NLL. The “combat-ready” North Korean patrol boat “lost no time to deal a prompt retaliatory blow at the provokers,” the statement said, carried by the Korean Central News Agency (KCNA) and monitored in Seoul.

South Korean Defense Minister Kim Tae-young said in a parliamentary session that “no additional moves” by the North Korean military were detected north of the heavily armed border. South Korean analysts gave mixed views about North Korea’s possible motive behind the incident, which took place only a week ahead of an Asian trip by U.S. President Barack Obama.

“It appears to be a move to raise tension ahead of Obama’s visit to South Korea,” said Yoo Ho-yeol a North Korea professor at Korea University in Seoul. “North Koreans believe tension helps them strengthen their bargaining power.”

Ryu Gil-jae, professor at the University of North Korean Studies in Seoul, disagreed, saying the incident appeared aimed at testing the South Korean government. “North Korea would have test-fired missiles if it had wanted to vex the U.S.,” he said. “The Yellow Sea clash is more of a message to the South that it should be taken more seriously.”

The clash came amid an accelerating thaw between the Koreas, whose relations turned frosty following the inauguration of South Korean President Lee Myung-bak early last year. It also came as French President Nicolas Sarkozy’s special North Korea envoy was in the communist state for talks with its foreign minister on “matters of mutual concern,” according to KCNA.

Slapped with sanctions for its May nuclear test, North Korea has in recent months extended peace overtures to the outside world, while South Korean media speculated the two Koreas were working secretly to set up summit talks.

Kang Sung-yoon, a North Korea specialist at Seoul’s Dongguk University, said the North Korean attack on the South appears to serve more than one purpose. “It could be aimed at pressuring both the U.S. and South Korea to engage in dialogue with Pyongyang more seriously,” he said while warning against reaching a quick conclusion on the issue. “Details regarding the incident should be looked at to understand what the North Korean intent really was,” he said.

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