SEOUL – Shelling by North Korea of waters where a South Korean warship was patrolling was likely a warning and not an attempted attack, officials and analysts said Friday in Seoul.
On Thursday, the two Koreas exchanged artillery fire along the poorly marked western sea boundary, forcing hundreds of residents on a front-line island to flee to bomb shelters. Defense officials in Seoul said the exchange started when two North Korean artillery shells fell near a South Korean navy ship on a routine patrol.
The South’s vessel was not hit, but it retaliated, firing several artillery rounds into waters near one of several North Korean warships near the sea boundary, the officials said. The North Korean ship wasn’t hit.
The North’s actions began at 6 p.m., a spokesman for the South’s Defense Ministry said. The South Korean ship was passing at the time near the front-line island of Yeonpyeong.
North Korea doesn’t recognize the Yellow Sea boundary, which was drawn at the end of the 1950-53 Korean War.
In November 2010, North Korea shelled Yeonpyeong, killing four South Koreans and briefly triggering concerns of a full-scale conflict. This March, the North fired hundreds of shells in a live exercise near the sea boundary. About 100 shells fell in South Korean territorial waters, and the Seoul responded with volleys of shells into North Korean waters.
Defense Ministry spokesman Kim Min-seok said Friday that officials suspect the North Korean shells came from a land-based artillery unit, but that they had not identified the precise origin. Defense officials had said Thursday the shelling originated from a North Korean warship.
Koh Yu-hwan, a professor of North Korean studies at Seoul’s Dongguk University, said the North likely likely isn’t aiming to hit South Korean ships because it doesn’t want any conflict to distract from ongoing criticism of South Korea’s incompetent handling of the Sewol ferry disaster, in which 304 people died.
Meanwhile, North Korea’s military issued a statement on Friday denying it fired artillery shells. It claimed a South Korean warship had intruded into the North Korean waters and initiated firing on its own.
“The verified fact is that the puppet navy vessel, which intruded deeply into our waters under the pretense of controlling Chinese fishing boats, fired recklessly and lied that we had fired first. This is a sheer fabrication,” North Korea’s military Western Front Command said in a statement. “All troops under the Western Front Command are well prepared to crush ruthlessly the aggravating provocative acts by the puppet military gangsters, in the name of all the people.”
It said the tense area would become a “tomb” for the South’s military.
But South Korean Defense Ministry spokesman Kim Min-seok stood by Seoul’s charges and dismissed Pyongyang’s claim as a “blatant lie,” telling journalists, “North Korea’s such far-fetched claims are nothing but a blatant lie . . . and are subject to ridicule by the international community.”
Also Friday, a South Korean military Joint Chiefs of Staff spokesman said the North was continuously sending messages through an international radio channel, threatening attacks on the South’s military vessels operating near the sea border. “Recently, it has been threatening to bombard our ships unless they pull back” from the sea border, he said.
South Korean President Park Geun-Hye on Friday also expressed “very strong regret” that North Korea committed this “provocation” at a time when South Koreans are in grief over last month’s Sewol sinking, her spokesman, Min Kyung-wook, said.
Cross-border tension has been high amid signs that the nuclear-armed North may be preparing to conduct a fourth atomic test. This month, both Koreas have upped the rhetorical ante in their verbal exchanges over crashed surveillance drones recovered on the South Korean side of the border.
The two Koreas regularly conduct artillery drills in the disputed waters, where they have had three bloody naval skirmishes since 1999.