[News analysis] Last safeguard against continued clashes along two Koreas’ disputed sea border

Posted on : 2022-10-25 15:37 KST Modified on : 2022-10-25 15:37 KST
As tensions rise in the West Sea, the South Korean Navy is holding large-scale maritime drills there this week
This photo, released by North Korean state media on Oct. 10, shows one of the military exercises carried out by the North between Sept. 25 and Oct. 9. (KCNA/Yonhap)
This photo, released by North Korean state media on Oct. 10, shows one of the military exercises carried out by the North between Sept. 25 and Oct. 9. (KCNA/Yonhap)

A hair-trigger situation unfolded on the Northern Limit Line (NLL) in the West Sea of Korea early Monday morning.

South and North Korea exchanged warning fire after a North Korean merchant ship crossed the NLL, while South Korean Air Force fighter aircraft moved in to prepare for eventualities.

The situation showed that the NLL, traditionally a powder keg between the two sides, is once again in a precarious state amid increasing speculation that a seventh nuclear test by North Korea is imminent.

At 3:42 am on Monday, a North Korean merchant ship, the 5,000-ton Mupo, crossed over the NLL around 27 kilometers northwest of Baengnyeong Island in the West Sea.

The South Korean Joint Chiefs of Staff explained that the ship was “forced to leave through warning communications and warning fire.” Over a roughly 40-minute period that morning, the North Korean ship ventured as far as 3.3 km south of the NLL.

South Korean military authorities issued 20 primary and secondary emergency communications to the North Korean vessel, which did not change course. They proceeded to fire 20 warning shots from an M60 machine gun in the area ahead of the vessel.

At 4:20 am, the North Korean ship moved back north of the NLL toward China.

In response to the North Korean vessel’s movements past the NLL in the early morning hours, South Korean military authorities mobilized the Marines and patrol capabilities, including Navy frigates, as well as Air Force KF-16 aircraft to prepare for the possibility of an unintended clash.

The Navy vessels approached to within a kilometer of the North Korean ship, while the North Korean side issued communications ordering them not to approach North Korean waters.

After the North Korean merchant ship had returned to the northern side of the NLL, the North Korean military fired 10 multiple rocket launcher rounds toward the West Sea maritime buffer zone at 5:14 am from the area of Changsan Cape in South Hwanghae Province. While no shells fell on the southern side of the NLL, the Joint Chiefs explained that the North’s actions were in violation of the inter-Korean military agreement of September 2018, which prohibits the firing of artillery in the maritime buffer zone.

North Korea countered by saying that the South Korean Navy had “invaded” the “Military Demarcation Line […] on the sea.”

A spokesperson for the General Staff of the Korean People’s Army said, “An escort ship of the 2nd Fleet of the puppet south Korean navy invaded the Military Demarcation Line under the control of the Korean People's Army on the sea 2.5 to 5 km in the waters 20 km northwest of Paekryong Island at around 3:50 on Monday to open ‘warning fire’ on the excuse of controlling an unidentified ship.”

“The KPA opened 10 threatening and warning fires in the direction of 270 degrees of firing azimuth from the area of Ryongyon County at 5:15 [am] on October 24,” it added.

The military demarcation line “on the sea” referred to here is a line arbitrarily set by North Korea, which extends as far as 6 kilometers south of the NLL. While the NLL is regarded by the South as the practical maritime border with the North, it is not recognized by Pyongyang.

North Korea has adopted the approach of dividing the waters where the five West Sea islands and its own mainland territory meet in half and asserting a maritime demarcation line establishing an area extending 12 nautical miles from its coast between Socheong and Yeonpyeong islands, which it claims to be under its jurisdiction according to the standard for defining territorial waters.

A South Korean military official said, “We responded normally according to the NLL standard, and we do not accept North Korea’s claims that we ‘violated the maritime demarcation line.’”

The official also said the waters between the NLL and the maritime military demarcation line claimed by North Korea are a “normal operational zone” for the South. According to this explanation, the South Korean Navy vessels remained to the south of the NLL, and the machine gun warning shots did not cross the NLL either.

While there are occasional instances where small North Korean fishing boats cross the NLL by accident or due to engine failure during their fishing activities, such crossings are rarely observed by North Korean merchant vessels equipped with navigation devices and piloted by trained sailors. According to the South Korean military, this was the first example of a North Korean merchant ship crossing the line in five years and nine months — the last such instance having happened in the East Sea in January 2017.

The North Korean ship that crossed the NLL was named “Mupo” — the same name as a weapon transport ship that was carrying Scud missiles to Syria in September 1991 when it was detected by surveillance from US intelligence authorities and others and forced to return to port without making its delivery. It was reportedly unknown whether the Mupo that crossed the NLL on Monday was the same ship as the one from 31 years earlier or merely shared the same name.

South Korean military authorities are considering multiple possibilities, including that the Mupo merchant ship may have been performing a different clandestine role as in 1991, or that North Korea deliberately had it cross the NLL to incite a response from the South Korean military and establish a pretext for a localized provocation.

“It is unimaginable that a North Korean merchant ship would cross the Northern Limit Line at 3:42 in the morning without prior approval from the North Korean military,” said Cheong Seong-chang, director of the North Korea center at the Sejong Institute.

“There is a strong possibility that North Korea deliberately orchestrated this situation in order to neutralize the West Sea NLL,” he suggested.

He went on to say, “The North Korean merchant ship’s violation of the NLL and the North Korean military’s multiple rocket launcher fire show once again that the inter-Korean agreement on the ‘maritime non-aggression boundary in the West’ is non-existent.”

“Based on their confidence in the operation of tactical nuclear weapons, North Korea is going to attempt to neutralize the NLL, which is drawn in a way that is disadvantageous to them,” he predicted.

The history of South and North Korea each unilaterally declaring a maritime boundary and regarding the other side’s presence beyond it as a “violation of territorial waters” has resulted in frequent eruptions of conflict and clashes along the NLL in the West Sea.

Three skirmishes occurred between the South and North Korean navies near the NLL in the West Sea in 1999, 2002, and 2009. The abandonment of the September 2018 inter-Korean military agreement — which has served as a safeguard against military clashes in the area — would return the region to a precarious state where inter-Korean military clashes have the potential to erupt again.

As tensions rise in the West Sea, the South Korean Navy is holding large-scale maritime drills there Monday through Thursday to prepare for the possibilities of special forces unit infiltration and localized provocations. The drills are held regularly each year as part of national defense exercises. This year’s event is a joint exercise with the US military also taking part.

By Kwon Hyuk-chul, staff reporter; Shin Hyeong-cheol, staff reporter

Please direct questions or comments to [english@hani.co.kr]

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