South Korea returned fire after North Korea lobbed three shells into the waters near Yeonpyeong Island about 1 p.m. yesterday and shot back again around 7:46 p.m. when two more shells landed in the ocean, said an official from the defense ministry in Seoul who declined to be identified, citing military policy. North Korea denied firing any artillery and accused its neighbor of using construction blasting in nearby Hwanghaenam Province as a pretext for confrontation, according to a report from the state-run Korean Central News Agency.
The incident came a month after both nations said they would try to revive multilateral talks on North Korea’s nuclear- weapons program, signaling an easing of tension between the two rivals that has been an irritant to U.S.-China ties over the past year. The so-called Northern Limit Line dividing their western border in the Yellow Sea has been a source of repeated conflict since the 1950-1953 civil war ended in a cease-fire.
“North Korea appears to be provoking the South in a calculated manner to highlight the need for a peace treaty to replace the armistice agreement after the war,” said Kim Yong Hyun, a professor at Dongguk University in Seoul. “I doubt the North will go so far as to risk breaking down the dialogue.”
U.S. forces in South Korea are closely monitoring the situation, said Navy Commander Leslie Hull-Ryde, a Pentagon spokeswoman. State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland said “we are asking North Korea to exercise restraint.”
South Korea stepped up surveillance in the area after the first shelling, said the defense ministry official, who declined provide details or comment on military alert levels. KCNA said South Korea had increased the number of warships in the area and flew fighters around five islands in the vicinity.
The JoongAng Ilbo newspaper reported yesterday that North Korean spies with orders to assassinate South Korean Defense Minister Kim Kwan Jin have entered the country. South Korean and U.S. intelligence officials are working to find them, the report said, citing unidentified South Korean officials.
The Dong-A Ilbo newspaper said today that South Korea has tightened security for President Lee Myung Bak, the prime minister and some other government officials.
Officials in the defense ministry and the president’s office declined to comment on the Dong-A Ilbo report or security levels.
Defense Minister Kim said after the November artillery bombardment by North Korea that in the event of further attacks his country would “mobilize all combat capabilities available to severely punish the enemy,” including airstrikes.
Four South Koreans died in November when the North shelled Yeonpyeong Island in retaliation for South Korea firing rounds into the disputed waters during a training exercise. Relations soured earlier in the year over the sinking of a South Korean warship in March, killing 46 sailors.
The two incidents spurred the U.S. to put pressure on China, North Korea’s main source of trade and financial aid, to rein in Kim Jong Il’s government. China accounted for 83 percent of North Korea’s $4.2 billion of international commerce in 2010, the Korea Trade-Investment Promotion Agency said in May. China made up 79 percent of trade in 2009 and 53 percent in 2005, according to the Seoul-based organization.
South Korea’s chief nuclear envoy, Wi Sung Lac, said on July 22 that his two-hour discussion with his North Korean counterpart, Ri Yong Ho, at a regional security forum on the Indonesian island of Bali was “very constructive.” The U.S. then invited North Korean officials to New York for further negotiations.
The maritime border between the two countries snakes around the Ongjin peninsula, creating a buffer for five island groups that South Korea kept under the armistice. That agreement doesn’t mention a sea border, which isn’t on United Nations maps drawn up at the time. North Korea says it doesn’t recognize the border, which hems in its ships and excludes it from fertile crabbing and fishing grounds.
The three-nautical-mile (3.5-statute-mile) territorial limit used to devise the line was standard then. Today, almost all countries, including both Koreas, use a 12-mile rule, and the islands are within 12 miles of the North Korean mainland. The farthest is about 100 miles (160 kilometers) from the closest major South Korean port at Incheon.
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