North and South Korea Exchange Fire Across Disputed Sea Border By CHOE SANG-HUN

view original / NY Times / 31 Mar 14

SEOUL, South Korea — North Korea and South Korea fired hundreds of artillery shells across their disputed western sea border on Monday, escalating military tensions a day after the North threatened to conduct more nuclear tests.

South Korean officials said the shells from both sides fell harmlessly into waters from which naval and fishing boats had stayed clear. But the exchange of fire marked the most serious episode along the western sea border since an artillery duel there in 2010.

Earlier on Monday, North Korea had told the South that it would conduct live-fire military drills in seven zones along the maritime border, which hugs the southern coast of North Korea. Then its artillery pieces and multiple-rocket launchers rolled out of shoreline tunnels and fired 500 shells and projectiles between 12:15 p.m. and 2:30 p.m.

About 100 of them flew across the disputed sea border and fell into South Korean-controlled waters near Baengnyeong Island, said Kim Min-seok, the spokesman for the South Korean Ministry of National Defense. Baengnyeong, a South Korean marine garrison, lies only 10 miles from the southwestern tip of North Korea.

In retaliation, South Korean marines fired K-9 self-propelled artillery pieces, pounding North Korean waters north of the disputed sea border with 300 shells, Mr. Kim said.

With guns from both sides rumbling, residents of the five South Korean border islands, including hundreds of children, hurried into bomb shelters. South Korea suspended ferry services to the islands and ordered fishing boats operating near the border waters to return to port.

“This is a premeditated provocation to test our will to defend the maritime border, and if the North provokes again using our response today as an excuse, we will act decisively,” Mr. Kim said. “We have increased our vigilance along the western frontier islands and boosted weapons’ readiness there.”

Artillery exchanges in the disputed waters are not unprecedented, but rising military tensions there indicated that after months of relative calm, hostilities between the two Koreas have begun ratcheting up again. They raised fears that the often-repeated cycle of peace overtures followed by military provocations was resuming on the Korean Peninsula.

“Pyongyang prefers to strike when it sees Washington as weak or distracted, beset by bigger problems,” Lee Sung-yoon, a North Korea expert at the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University, said, referring to the North’s capital.

President Obama “is seen as wavering on Russia and Syria,” he said. “It would be a good time to raise the stakes once more with a nuclear or long-range missile test, as Pyongyang has intimated in recent days.”

Citing the joint military exercises Washington and Seoul started in late February as a justification, North Korea has test-fired a series of rockets and short- and midrange ballistic missiles in recent weeks. The tests prompted the United Nations Security Council to warn last week of new action against the country, which is already under heavy sanctions.

On Sunday, Pyongyang threatened “a new form of nuclear test” and warned that its military would conduct drills aimed at improving its ability to attack mid- and long-range targets with “more diversified nuclear deterrence” and “with a variety of striking power.”

The two parties in the Korean War never agreed on a western sea border when the three-year conflict ended in a cease-fire in 1953. South Korea tries to defend the so-called northern limit line, which was unilaterally declared by the United Nations. North Korea does not recognize it, claiming another demarcation line farther south.

Today, the western waters are the most dangerous flash points along the border between North and South Korea. A string of South Korean islands, guarded by marines and heavy artillery, lie just south of the maritime border and within range of North Korean coastal guns and rocket launchers.

The waters were the scene of several naval skirmishes in recent years. In 2010, North Korea fired hundreds of artillery rounds into disputed waters, some of them falling south of the northern limit line. Later that year, it shelled one of the South Korean border islands, killing four people and prompting the South to retaliate with its own barrage against North Korean gun positions.

North Korea’s latest hostilities came as the country was preparing for major anniversaries, like the April 15 birthday of Kim Il-sung, the deceased grandfather of the current leader, Kim Jong-un, and the April 25 anniversary of the North Korean military. The North was also scheduled to convene its recently elected rubber-stamp Parliament on April 9.

The regime traditionally uses such events to bolster internal solidarity, sometimes with the aid of missile and nuclear tests and other provocations.

Kim Jong-un, who came to power after the death of his father, Kim Jong-il, in 2011, has so far “turned out to be more of a hard-liner and far more bellicose in external relations than his father,” said Cheong Seong-chang, a North Korea expert at Sejong Institute of South Korea.

On Monday, an editorial in the Rodong Sinmun, the official organ of the ruling Workers’ Party in North Korea, urged the country not to succumb to “American nuclear blackmail” but to continue strengthening its nuclear arsenal. The daily published the editorial to mark the first anniversary of a 2013 party meeting in which North Korea adopted the “simultaneous” development of nuclear weapons and the economy as the country’s top policy goal.

There was no sign of an imminent nuclear test from North Korea, but the South Korean military was operating an emergency response system to promptly handle North Korean provocations, the South Korean defense ministry said.

North Korea has conducted three underground nuclear tests since 2006.

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