Concern for potential conflicts has been heightened by North Korea’s recent blitz of missile tests, and on Monday the two countries traded warning shots near their disputed western maritime border, a location of previous bloodshed and naval warfare.
The Joint Chiefs of Staff of South Korea stated in a statement that at 3:42 a.m., the South Korean navy aired warnings and fired warning shots to repel a North Korean commercial ship that had crossed the maritime border.
The North Korean military said that when “naval hostile activity was spotted” in its territorial seas, its coastal defense troops fired 10 rounds of artillery warning shots. It claimed that a South Korean navy ship had entered North Korean seas to clamp down on a mystery vessel.
Although no violence was reported, the maritime border off the west coast of the Korean Peninsula has long been a source of tension. The United Nations, under American leadership, established a line after the conclusion of the Korean War in 1953, although North Korea is insistent on a boundary that significantly intrudes into seas administered by the South. In 2010, the North allegedly torpedoed a South Korean naval ship and in the same year it shelled a South Korean island, both resulting in fatalities. Fifty South Koreans were killed between the two strikes.
It is “unimaginable” for a North Korean commerce ship to cross the line that early in the day without the consent of the North’s military, according to analyst Cheong Seong-Chang of the private Sejong Institute in South Korea.
Cheong claims North Korea’s latest missile tests, in which Pyongyang claimed to have practiced the use of tactical nuclear weapons against South Korean and U.S. targets, had given the country a false sense of security. He said Pyongyang would be aware that U.S.-U.S. tensions with Russia and China make it harder for the United States to get assistance from those two regional countries on the North Korean problem.
The South Korean military, Cheong added, “has to undertake extensive preparations to avoid new conflicts from developing on the West Sea and prevent them from triggering the worst case scenario like the North Korean military’s artillery bombardments” on a South Korean border island.
The Joint Chiefs of Staff of South Korea have said that North Korea’s artillery firings on Monday violated an inter-Korean agreement on decreasing military animosities from 2018. The report said that no shells fired by North Korea really reached South Korean territory, but the latter is nevertheless increasing its military preparedness.
The North Korean People’s Army General Staff claimed that South Korea was to blame for stoking tensions with its own artillery experiments and propaganda loudspeaker broadcasts in the area immediately around the de facto boundary between the two countries. Despite the fact that South Korea has admitted to using artillery as part of its routine military drills last week, it has denied resuming the loudspeaker broadcasts that both Koreas agreed to end in 2018.
In response to recent artillery fire and loudspeaker broadcasts on the ground front, the North issued a statement reading, “The KPA General Staff once again conveys a dire warning to the adversaries who committed even naval encroachment.”
North Korea claims its latest nuclear missile and artillery test firings were in retaliation for what it sees as invasion rehearsals by the United States and South Korea.
With joint military drills between South Korea and the United States still ongoing, some experts worry that North Korea would continue its recent testing, execute its first nuclear test in five years, or launch other provocations along the western sea border or elsewhere.
Prof. Leif-Eric Easley from Seoul’s Ewha University said that Pyongyang’s tactics of blaming foreign threats and expressing confidence in its capabilities might encourage higher risk taking. North Korea’s “probing of South Korean perimeter defenses might lead to a major exchange of fire and unforeseen escalation.”
As is tradition, the South Korean military is now engaged in their yearly field exercises, which this year also include participation from the United States. South Korea and the United States have begun large-scale, four-day fire exercises off the west coast of the peninsula. According to a statement released by the South Korean military, the exercises will include the participation of U.S. helicopters and planes alongside South Korean warships and fighter fighters.
Regular exercises between Washington and Seoul had been reduced or canceled in recent years to either protect against the COVID-19 epidemic or assist the moribund nuclear dialogue between the two countries and North Korea. Since conservative South Korean President Yoon Suk Yeol took office in May and vowed to take a stronger line on North Korean aggression, the allies have been resuming or increasing these trainings.