Seoul, South Korea — North and South Korea exchanged warning shots on Monday along their disputed western maritime border – a scene of bloodshed and past naval battles – in a development that raises fears of possible clashes after the North Korea’s recent weapons test barrage.
The South Korean navy issued warnings and fired warning shots to repel a North Korean merchant ship that violated the maritime border at 03:42 a.m., the Joint Chiefs of Staff said in a statement.
North Korea’s military said its coastal defense units responded by firing 10 artillery warning shots into its territorial waters, where “enemy naval movement was detected”. He accused a South Korean navy vessel of entering North Korean waters under the guise of cracking down on an unidentified vessel.
No fighting has been reported, but the maritime border off the west coast of the Korean peninsula has been a source of longstanding animosities. The American-led UN command drew a border at the end of the 1950-1953 Korean War, but North Korea insists on a border that encroaches deep into southern-controlled waters. Deadly events in the region include the North’s bombardment of a South Korean island and the alleged torpedoing of a South Korean navy ship, both in 2010. The two attacks killed 50 South Koreans.
Analyst Cheong Seong-Chang of South Korea’s private Sejong Institute said North Korea likely planned its ship incursion intentionally because it would be “unimaginable” for a North Korean merchant vessel to cross the border if early in the day without authorization from the Northern Army.
Cheong said North Korea was increasingly emboldened by its recent missile tests in which North Korea said it simulated the use of tactical nuclear weapons to attack South Korean and American targets. He noted that Pyongyang also knew that Washington’s strained relations with Russia and China made it more difficult for the United States to secure cooperation from the two regional powers on the North Korean issue.
“The South Korean army must prepare to prevent further skirmishes from occurring in the West Sea and prevent them from leading the North Korean army to launch artillery bombardments” on a South Korean border island , Cheong said.
South Korea’s Joint Chiefs of Staff said Monday’s North Korean artillery fire violated a 2018 inter-Korean agreement on reducing military animosities and undermined stability on the Korean peninsula. He said North Korean shells did not land in South Korean waters, but South Korea was stepping up its military preparedness.
The North Korean People’s Army General Staff has accused South Korea of causing animosities near its land border as well as with its own artillery tests and propaganda loudspeaker broadcasts. South Korea has previously confirmed it carried out artillery fire last week as part of its regular military drills, but denied resuming loudspeaker broadcasts that the two Koreas had halted as part of the deal. of 2018.
“The KPA General Staff once again sends a grave warning to the enemies who have even made a naval intrusion following provocations such as the recent artillery fire and the broadcast of loudspeakers on the front land,” the statement from the North said.
North Korea has said its recent weapons tests involving nuclear-capable missiles and artillery shells were a response to joint South Korean and US military exercises which it sees as a rehearsal for an invasion.
Some observers say North Korea could expand its test series, conduct its first nuclear test in five years or launch other provocations near the western sea border or elsewhere as South Korean and US militaries continue drills combined military.
“Pyongyang’s policy of blaming external threats and projecting confidence in military capabilities may motivate greater risk-taking,” said Leif-Eric Easley, a professor at Ewha University in Seoul. “North Korea’s investigation of South Korea’s perimeter defenses could lead to a serious firefight and unintended escalation.”
The South Korean military is currently conducting its annual field exercises, which involve US troops this year. As part of the drills, the South Korean and U.S. military began four-day large-scale gunnery drills off the west coast of the peninsula on Monday. The exercises would involve South Korean destroyers and warplanes as well as American 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 bolster their now-dormant nuclear diplomacy with North Korea or guard against the COVID-19 pandemic. But the allies have revived or expanded such training since the inauguration in May of conservative South Korean President Yoon Suk Yeol, who swears a tougher stance on North Korean provocation.
Next week, South Korea and the United States are to hold joint air force exercises involving some 240 fighter jets, including F-35 fighters operated by the two nations. The drills aim to inspect the two countries’ joint operations capabilities 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 plans to resume stalled nuclear diplomacy with Washington anytime soon, as he would like to focus on modernizing his nuclear arsenal to strengthen his influence in future negotiations with the United States.