N.Korean Provocation Requires a Calm Response

      November 11, 2009 13:05

      North and South Korean naval vessels exchanged fire for about two minutes off the coast of Daecheong Island on Tuesday morning after the North Korean boat crossed the Northern Limit Line (NLL). According to the Joint Chiefs of Staff, the South Korean ship spotted the North Korean patrol boat trespassing about 2.2 km south of the NLL at around 11 a.m. and issued four verbal warnings. But the North Korean boat continued to head south, prompting the South Koreans to issue a final message and fire warning shots. The North Koreans fired around 50 rounds directly at the South Korean naval vessel, which returned fire immediately. The South Korean vessel was hit about 15 times, but suffered no casualties. The North Korean boat returned home in a cloud of smoke. It was the third time that North and South Korean naval vessels clashed in the West Sea after 1999 and 2002.

      The South Korean response adhered to rules of engagement that were revised in 2004, requiring warning messages to be relayed followed by warning shots and finally direct fire. North Korea has trespassed the maritime border 22 times since the beginning of this year, when it declared itself "no longer bound" by the armistice. But it was the first time since then that the North resorted to armed provocation.

      If the South Korean ship had failed to respond effectively, the North would no doubt have resorted to bolder provocations. During the naval clash in 2002, six South Korean sailors died and 18 were wounded because the government had virtually paralyzed quick response capabilities by ordering the Navy to wait for permission from headquarters before engaging North Korean targets. That decision came after North Korea suffered heavy casualties in a naval clash with the South in January 1999. But after facing mounting public anger over the deaths in 2002, the government changed the rules of engagement and bolstered the power of frontline commanders.

      President Lee Myung-bak on Tuesday ordered the military to raise alert levels and to "react decisively yet calmly to make sure the situation does not deteriorate further."

      Until recently, North Korea looked as though it was trying to improve relations with South Korea. There was even talk of a possible inter-Korean summit. An upcoming visit by the U.S. special envoy for North Korea, Stephen Bosworth, around the end of this month is expected to pave the way for the North’s return to six-party nuclear talks. At this point, Seoul needs to take an objective look at North Korea's tactic of dialogue and provocation while remaining vigilant of additional provocations, since the North has repeatedly tried to up the ante when initial attempts failed.

      North Korea has officially declared the NLL null and void, meaning that incidents like this are likely to be repeated regularly. The government should hold talks with North Korean military officials and find out why the latest clash happened and look for ways to prevent such incidents from happening again.

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