North and South Korea exchange warning shots along disputed maritime border


SEOUL, South Korea — North and South Korea on Monday exchanged warning shots along their disputed western sea border — a scene of past bloodshed and naval battles — in a development raising concerns about potential clashes following North Korea’s recent barrage of weapons tests.

The South Korean Navy sent warnings and fired warning shots to repel a North Korean merchant ship that violated the maritime boundary at 3:42 a.m., the Joint Chiefs of Staff said in a statement.

The North Korean military said its coastal defense units responded by firing 10 rounds of artillery warning shots into its territorial waters where “enemy naval movement was detected.” It accused a South Korean naval vessel of entering North Korean waters on the pretext of acting against an unidentified ship.

There were no reports of fighting, but the sea border off the west coast of the Korean peninsula is a source of long-running hostilities. The American-led UN command drew a border at the end of the 1950-53 Korean War, but North Korea insists on a border that goes deep into South-controlled waters. Deadly events in the region include the North’s shelling of a South Korean island and the alleged torpedoing of a South Korean naval ship, both in 2010. The two attacks killed 50 South Koreans.

People are seen in front of the TV screen covering the exchanged warning shots October 24, 2022 in Seoul, South Korea.

Analyst Cheong Seong-Chang of South Korea’s private Sejong Institute said North Korea probably planned its ship incursion on purpose because it would be “unimaginable” for a North Korean merchant ship to cross the border so early in the day without permission from the country’s military .

Cheong said North Korea is increasingly encouraged by its recent missile tests, during which North Korea said it simulated the use of tactical nuclear weapons to attack South Korean and US targets. He noted that Pyongyang also knew that Washington’s strained relations with Russia and China would make it difficult for the US to get the two regional powers to cooperate on the North Korea issue.

“The South Korean military must make preparations to prevent new skirmishes from taking place in the West Sea and prevent them from leading to the North Korean military launching artillery bombardments on a South Korean border island,” Cheong said.

South Korea’s Joint Chiefs of Staff said Monday’s North Korean artillery shelling violated a 2018 inter-Korean agreement to reduce military hostilities and undermined stability on the Korean peninsula. It said the North Korean shells did not land in South Korean waters, but South Korea is increasing its military preparedness.

The General Staff of the North Korean People’s Army accused South Korea of ​​provoking hostilities near the country’s border with its own artillery tests and propaganda loudspeaker transmissions. South Korea has already confirmed it conducted artillery fire as part of its regular military drills last week, but denied having resumed loudspeaker broadcasts, which both Koreas had halted under the 2018 deal.

“The KPA General Staff once again sends a serious warning to the enemies who have even launched a naval invasion after such provocations as the recent artillery barrage and loudspeaker transmissions on the ground front,” the North’s statement said.

North Korea said its recent weapons tests of nuclear-capable missiles and artillery shells were in response to joint military exercises between South Korea and the US, which it considers an invasion rehearsal.

Some observers say North Korea could extend its test series, conduct its first nuclear test in five years, or launch other provocations near the western maritime border or elsewhere while the South Korean and US militaries continue joint military exercises.

“Pyongyang’s policy of blaming external threats and projecting confidence in military capabilities can motivate greater risk-taking,” said Leif-Eric Easley, a professor at Ewha University in Seoul. “North Korean probes of South Korean perimeter defenses could lead to a serious exchange of fire and an unintended escalation.”

The South Korean military is currently conducting its annual field exercises, which this year are involving US troops. As part of the drills, the South Korean and US military began large-scale, four-day gunnery exercises off the west coast of the peninsula on Monday. The drills would mobilize South Korean destroyers and fighter jets, as well as US helicopters and planes, the South Korean Navy said in a statement.

Washington and Seoul had scaled back or canceled their regular drills in recent years to support their now-dormant nuclear diplomacy with North Korea or to protect themselves from the COVID-19 pandemic. But allies have revived or expanded those training sessions since the inauguration in May of conservative South Korean President Yoon Suk Yeol, who pledged a tougher stance against North Korean provocation.

Next week, South Korea and the United States will hold joint air force exercises involving about 240 fighter jets, including F-35 fighters, operated by both nations. The drills aim to inspect the two countries’ capabilities for joint operations and improve combat readiness, the South Korean military said on Tuesday.

Some experts say the North Korean tests also suggest that its leader, Kim Jong Un, has no intention of resuming stalled nuclear diplomacy with Washington any time soon, as he wants to focus on further upgrading its nuclear arsenal to use its influence in future negotiations strengthen with the United States.

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