The Lessons of the 2 Yeonpyeong Naval Battles

      June 16, 2009 13:00

      The Korean Navy in a ceremony at the Second Fleet in Pyeongtaek, Gyeonggi Province on Monday marked the 10th anniversary of the first Yeonpyeong Naval Battle. Until last year, the Second Fleet had been in charge of organizing this ceremony, but it was elevated in status this year and Navy Headquarters took control.

      The battle took place on June 15, 1999 after North Korean gunships crossed the Northern Limit Line, prompting a South Korean high-speed boat to ram into a North Korean torpedo boat, causing it to sink. South Korean ships also sank five North Korean patrol boats. South Korean losses totaled nine injuries and minimal damage to the hulls of a patrol ship and high-speed boat. But the battle was the first clash between conventional forces of the two Koreas since the end of the Korean War, and the South Korean soldiers involved have not been given proper credit until now. Rear Admiral Park Jung-sung of the Naval Reserve Forces, who was the commander of the Second Fleet at the time of the battle, said, "The victory was source of great pride for the Navy, but ended up being perceived as a crime due to the Sunshine Policy" of rapprochement with North Korea. In 2004, the Navy tried to build a monument at a park in Incheon to mark the victory, but had to cancel the plan due to resistance from civic groups.

      Moreover, following the battle, the South Korean military created a new rule of engagement requiring naval vessels to block North Korean ships crossing over the NLL, then broadcast warning messages, demand them to return to their side of the maritime border and fire warning shots before being authorized to fire at the North's ships. During the second Yeonpyeong Naval Battle on June 29, 2002, six South Korean sailors perished after the South's high-speed boat Chamsuri 357 was sunk by a North Korean patrol boat.

      The deaths of the South Korean sailors were due largely to the impractical rules of engagement. At that time, six heavily-armed South Korean naval high-speed boats and two patrol ships had been present at the scene of the battle, but were unable to deal aggressively with the North Korean vessels. The head of the Joint Chiefs of Staff told the National Assembly his troops could not fire on the North Korean ships due to fears of the battle escalating into a war. The rule of engagement, which was devised to minimize military tension, ended up costing lives.

      Now military tension is rising once again on the West Sea, with North Korea announcing that the armistice is no longer valid and that the safety of vessels in the area could no longer be guaranteed. Defense Minister Lee Sang-hee ordered his field commanders last Monday to use the combined resources of the Navy to swiftly deal with North Korean provocations. The first Yeonpyeong Naval Battle lasted 14 minutes and the second one 18. A lack of decisiveness by field commanders could spell defeat. The only way to stop North Korea from resorting to reckless provocation is to make sure we are fully prepared to deal with them by learning the lessons from the two previous battles.

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