Tensions Rise on the Korean Peninsula as North and South Korea Exchange FireApril 1, 2014 in North Korea, South Korea
Tensions rose on Monday as North and South Korea traded hundreds of rounds of live artillery fire across their disputed maritime border, forcing South Korean islanders to take shelter just one day after the North increased tensions by threatening to carry out a “new” nuclear test.
South Korean officials indicated Monday that they had returned fire after North Korean shells landed in its territorial waters. In an attempt to ensure maximum publicity for its live-fire drill, North Korea took an unusual step by notifying the South beforehand. The live-fire exercises were announced by North Korea in a faxed message from its military to the South’s navy, with South Korea warning of an immediate retaliation if any shells were to cross its border.
A statement released by South Korea’s Defence Ministry indicated “some of (North Korea’s) shells landed south of the border during the drill. So our military fired back north of the border in line with ordinary protocol.” South Korea further stated that the sides exchanged hundreds of shells, with Defence Ministry spokesman Kim Min-Seok indicating that “the North fired some 500 shots…and some 100 of them landed in waters south of the border.” In response, the spokesman indicated that the South had responded to Pyongyang’s “premeditated provocation” by firing 300 shells from K-9 self-propelled howitzer batteries that are based on its front-line islands, adding “if the North takes issue with our legitimate returning of fire and uses it to make yet another provocation towards our sea and islands, we will make a resolute retaliation.” During the three-hour incident, which began at 12:15PM (0315 GMT), border island residents were evacuated to shelters as South Korean fighter jets flew overhead. The evacuation order was lifted an hour after the North ended its drills.
While China, which is North Korea’s largest trading partner, has called for calm and restraint in the wake of the exchange of fire, Monday’s incident, which comes a day after Pyongyang threatened to conduct a “new” type of nuclear test, has largely been seen as a sign of the North’s growing frustration with the United States’ resistance to resume multi-party talks on its nuclear programme. The nuclear negotiations are seen by Pyongyang as an opportunity for it to win material concessions and aid from the international community. Monday’s incident also coincided with a massive, amphibious landing drill by nearly 15,000 South Korean and US troops.
Tensions Increased Over Past Few Weeks
While Monday’s incident is not the first to occur in recent year, North-South tensions have been rising for weeks, undermining hopes that were raised after the North in February of this year hosted the first reunion for more than three years of families that were separated by the war.
Tensions on the Korean peninsula have been on the rise after North Korea last week test-fired two medium-range Nodong missiles over the sea, its first such launch since 2009. According to the South Korean defence ministry, the missiles were fired from the Suckon region north of Pyongyang and flew for about 650 kilometres (400 miles) before falling into the sea off the east coast of the Korean peninsula. Ministry spokesman Kim Min-Seok stated that the Nodong “…is capable of hitting not only most of Japan but also Russia and China.” The launch came shortly after US, South Korean and Japanese officials met for talks in the Netherlands. It also came on the fourth anniversary of the sinking of a South Korean warship.
The launch of the two missiles marked a step up from the short-range rockets Pyongyang has fired in recent weeks. Those launches were seen as a response to the current US-South Korea annual military exercises. To date, North Korea has conducted three nuclear tests, with the most recent, and most powerful, occurring in February last year.
While the United Nations drew the western border after the Korean War (1950 – 1953), North Korea has never recognised it and the area has been a flashpoint between the two Koreas. It argues that the de-facto maritime boundary was unilaterally drawn by US-led United Nations forces. In late 2010, four South Koreans, two marines and two civilians, were killed on a border island by North Korean artillery fire. At the time, North Korea stated that it was responding to South Korean military exercises that were occurring in the area. Tensions were already high that year after a South Korean warship sank near Baengnyeong island, resulting in the deaths of forty-six people. At the time, Seoul stated that Pyongyan had torpedoed the vessel, however North Korea denied any role in the incident. Border fire was also briefly exchanged in August 2011.