The disputed waters of the West Sea was the site of yet another clash between North and South Korea this week.  On March 31, 2014, during a North Korean live firing exercise near the West Sea Northern Limit Line (NLL), approximately 100 artillery rounds fell on the southern side of the contested maritime border.  The South Korean military responded by returning live fire.


North Korea, critical of South Korea’s recent seizure of a North Korean fishing vessel, notified the south in the morning of March 31 that it would carry out a naval firing exercise in seven sea border areas north of the NLL.


Between 12:15 pm and 3:30 pm, North Korea carried out seven rounds of live firing exercises.  It fired approximately five hundred artillery shells, one hundred of which fell on the south side of the NLL.  In response, the South Korean military fired 300 shells with a K-9 self-propelled artillery. It also deployed an F-15K fighter plane on patrol near the NLL.


According to a South Korean military official, most of North Korea’s artillery shells fell in the second sea border area facing Baek-ryeong Island where the South Korean military had seized the North Korean fishing vessel last week.


Recent developments in north-south and DPRK-US relations leading up to this latest clash will be dealt with in another post later this week.  But the source of the conflict can be traced back chiefly to two reasons.


Key Resolve Foal Eagle


In a statement protesting Key Resolve Foal Eagle, the annual US-ROK joint military exercises currently underway (February 24 through April 18), the North Korean Foreign Ministry called the annual war games “maneuvers for a nuclear war to seize the DPRK by force of arms.”


North Korea’s fear is not unfounded as the annual Key Resolve Foal Eagle mobilizes thousands of U.S. troops from U.S. bases in the region as well as the U.S. mainland in addition to hundreds of thousands of South Korean troops.  It also deploys the latest military hardware, including the U.S.’ nuclear-powered carrier Nimitz and nuclear-powered guided-missile submarine Ohio.


The drills rehearse surgical strike as well as infiltration of special forces into North Korea to carry out unconventional warfare, which the United States defines as “activities conducted to enable a resistance movement or insurgency to coerce, disrupt or overthrow an occupying power or government by operating through or with an underground, auxiliary and guerrilla force in a denied area.” In other words, regime change through active subversion.  Last year, U.S. forces focused on recalibrating its unconventional warfare tactics according to the specific context of the Korean theater of operations.  They also trained  South Korean counterparts, useful for navigating the complex cultural and geographic terrain of North Korea as well as in the “development of a loyal resistance organization.”


Unless the United States and South Korea abandon their regime change plans and halt the annual war games, North Korean acts of defiance such as what we saw this week will likely continue.


Contested Waters


The other source of repeated skirmishes in the West Sea can be found in the fact that the two Koreas have not agreed upon a mutual recognition of maritime borders.  According to Leon Sigal, the West Sea has been “troubled ever since the end of the Korean War in 1953, when the U.S. Navy unilaterally imposed a ceasefire line at sea north of the Military Demarcation Line (MDL) on land.” North Korea has long objected to this Northern Limit Line (NLL), says Sigal.  Instead, it wants the MDL to be extended out to sea.  (For an informative fact sheet on the history and origin of the West Sea Crisis in Korea, see Nan Kim’s article in Japan Focus.)


A 1974 CIA report on the NLL, declassified in 2000, states that the NLL “has no legal basis in international law” and that “no evidence exists that the North Koreans have ever formally recognized the NLL.”


Former South Korean president Roh Moo-Hyun and former North Korean leader Kim Jong Il attempted to resolve their mutual claims over the disputed waters at an inter-Korean summit in October 2007.  The summit produced a joint declaration, now commonly referred to as the “October 4 Declaration,” which states, among other things, that the two sides will cooperate to establish a “West Sea Special Zone for Peace and Cooperation” and a “common fishery zone in order to prevent accidental clashes in the West Sea.”


Clashes like the fatal artillery exchange on Yeonpyeong Island in 2010 and again in the West Sea this week are precisely what the 2007 summit had sought to forestall.


But former President Roh Moo-hyun’s successor Lee Myung-bak rescinded the October 4 Declaration immediately after taking office.  The conservative Lee also abrogated the inter-Korean accord for peaceful reconciliation from the historic 2000 summit, banned most cross-border trade and travel, and adopted a hawkish military stance against the north.  Since then, there have been multiple clashes, some fatal, in the contested waters in the West Sea, and tensions have increased each year as the U.S. and South Korean militaries simulate increasingly refined regime change scenarios in their annual joint exercises.


As long as the question of the maritime border remains unresolved and the US-ROK war games continue, it seems, crises like what we saw this week will become an annual recurrence, each time bringing us closer to the brink of war.


Former U.S. Forces in Korea Commander James Thurman has said his greatest fear on the Korean peninsula is “a miscalculation. An impulsive decision that causes a kinetic provocation.”  Other analysts agree.  According to the Rand Corp.’s Bruce Bennett, “The dangers of miscalculation are pretty significant” and “The potential for an escalatory spiral is very real.”  Miscalculation by either side leading to an accidental war can have catastrophic consequences and is unthinkable for the Korean people, for many of whom the wounds of the Korean War 60 years ago have yet to heal.


Nobel peace-laureate President Obama and President Park, self-proclaimed champion of reunification, have yet to take action for what they say they stand for.  Ceasing the US-ROK joint war games, abandoning regime change plans and honoring the October 4 declaration to turn the West Sea into peaceful waters might be a good place to start.

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