Chinese fishing vessels have recently moved out of North Korean waters in the West Sea, giving rise to speculation that the North is planning some kind of military action in the area. The boats thinned out late last month, and over 50 of them abruptly left the area on the afternoon of Feb. 4.
The South Korean Defense Ministry on Wednesday denied this had to do with impending military action by the North. "Claims that Chinese fishing boats moved out of the sea near the the Northern Limit Line (NLL) prior to the two previous inter-Korean naval skirmishes has been proven groundless," ministry spokesman Won Tae-jae told reporters. Both the 1999 and 2002 naval clashes took place off Yeonpyeong Island, and Chinese trawlers were fishing off nearby Baeknyeong Island on both occasions, the spokesman said.
Chinese fishing started near the de-facto maritime border in 2003, and Chinese fishing boats have since abruptly left the area twice although there was no North Korean military provocation, a military source said.
That indicates Chinese authorities to have ordered the fishing vessels to withdraw. Shandong Province fishing authorities in a webpage notice on Jan. 23 reportedly called for caution in fishing near the NLL, and recently sent skippers a radio message of that effect.
Military authorities are closely watching North Korean military moves against possible launching of short-range surface-to-ship or surface-to-surface missiles across the NLL or even a third naval skirmish on or around Feb. 16, the birthday of North Korean leader Kim Jong-il. "No movements have been detected thus far that North Korea will fire missiles or provoke another naval skirmish aimed at neutralizing the de facto sea border in the near future," said a military source.