North and South Korea naval vessels clash along disputed Northern Limit Line
(12 November 2009)Naval forces from North and South Korea exchanged fire in a clash along their disupted western maritime boundary on 10 November. Both sides have conflicting accounts but many reports suggest that a North Korean patrol vessel may have proceeded just beyond the disputed Northern Limit Line that is claimed by South Korea to be the maritime boundary. According to South Korean officials, a South Korean vessel closed on the North Korean patrol boat and sounded a warning broadcast twice before firing warning shots. Additional shots were exchanged at 3 km distance with the South Korean vessel receiving 15 hits of approximately 50 shots fired by the North Korean patrol boat and returning fire with its main gun. No South Korean sailors were killed in the action and North Korea has not reported any casualties on its side. However, the South Korean prime minister later announced that the North Korean vessel had returned to port in flames.
There are frequent minor incidents along the disputed Northern Limit Line, but this is the first serious clash since 2002. The clash took place off South Korea's Daecheong-Do island, located about 20 miles off North Korea's Ongjin peninsula. The 1953 armistice agreement stated that the military demarcation line on land would extend from its terminus through the Han estuary which would be open to civilian shipping from both sides. In the western section of the estuary and into the Yellow (West)Sea, the Northern Limit Line was drawn to allocate five islands, including Daecheong-Do, to the United Nations command (and subsequently to South Korea). The resulting line passes between the islands and North Korea's Ongjin peninsula, greatly restricting the maritime space off the mainland peninsula. South Korea has observed this line as the de facto maritime boundary and argues that it may have gained legal validity as a result of customary use and North Korea's initial endorsement in the armistice agreement. However, North Korea rejects this claim and has frequently reiterated that it does not consider the Northern Limit Line to be a maritime boundary. Major naval clashes have occured in 1999 when two North Korean vessels were lost and in 2002 when a South Korean vessel was sunk with six sailors killed. Tensions often rise during the June to September blue crab season when fishing boats from both states converage on the rich fishing areas of the Yellow (West) Sea.
Sources: 'Koreas clash off west coast, dispute each other's accounts' Sam Kim (Yonhap News Agency), Organisation of Asia-Pacific News Agencies, 10 November 2009; 'North and South Korean Patrol Boats Exchange Fire' Choe Sang-Hun, The New York Times, 10 November 2009.