North and South Korea exchange artillery fire

SEOUL: North and South Korea exchanged artillery fire Wednesday near their disputed sea border, Seoul officials said, less than three months after a naval firefight broke out along the flashpoint frontier.

The North’s land-based artillery batteries fired intermittently for more than an hour into the sea north of the borderline, the defence ministry said.

“Our military fired warning shots with our Vulcan cannons and sent out radio warnings,” a spokeswoman told AFP.

No one was hurt but the incident further raised tensions along the border, which was the scene of deadly naval clashes in 1999 and 2002. The latest firefight on November 10 left a North Korean patrol boat in flames.

The firing came a day after the communist North declared two “no sail zones”, extending into the South’s waters, around the borderline.

Yonhap news agency said the North’s shells landed near the South Korean-controlled island of Baengnyeong in the Yellow Sea. It said Marines based on the island responded by firing about 100 rounds from Vulcan cannons with a range of 3-4 kilometres (1.8-2.5 miles).

“When the North fired, some 20-30 columns of water shot up into the sky,” the agency quoted one source as saying.

The western sea border has been a constant source of tension since it was drawn by United Nations forces at the end of the 1950-53 Korean War. The North insists it should run further south.

The two sides have remained technically at war since the conflict ended without a formal peace treaty.

On Tuesday Seoul officials said the North had declared a two-month ban on shipping in two zones, raising speculation about military exercises or missile launches.

South Korea called an emergency meeting of security and other ministers.

“North Korea will likely continue such low-intensity military provocations like this in the next few months,” Baek Seung-Joo, of the Korea Institute for Defence Analyses, told AFP.

“But it is unlikely to take things to the extreme, as in general it wants to maintain economic cooperations with South Korea,” he said, adding it wants to avoid naval clashes since its ships are outgunned.

The sanctions-hit North has sent mixed messages to its neighbour in recent months. It is pressing to upgrade or restart joint business projects with the South, while its military at the same time has issued threats of war.

Pyongyang also demands talks with the United States on a formal peace treaty before returning to nuclear disarmament negotiations.

The November clash broke out when a North Korean patrol boat crossed the border and refused to turn back despite warnings, according to Seoul.

The firefight left the North’s boat retreating in flames and one South Korean craft with bullet holes in its hull. There was no information on North Korean casualties, while the South’s crewmen were unhurt.

Last month the North warned South Korean ships to avoid the border area, saying its coastal artillery would stage firing exercises in response to “reckless military provocations.” On Sunday the military lashed out at South Korea’s vow to launch a preemptive strike to thwart any nuclear attack, calling it “an open declaration of war.” On January 15 the North threatened to cut off exchanges with the South and launch a possible “holy war.” It was responding angrily to media reports that the South has drawn up a contingency plan for regime collapse in Pyongyang.

“The North feels it necessary to flex its military muscle to show its warning is not merely empty rhetoric,” said Koh Yu-hwan of Seoul’s Dongguk University.

The military is also angry about its defeat in the last naval clash, he said.

Koh said South Korea’s response would determine whether the flare-up escalated. “South Korea has been annoying the North unnecessarily with indiscreet remarks and press leaks.” – AFP

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