The Artillery Duel in Korea: Basic Facts and Historical Context
2010 faded away with a considerable increase in the military tensions in Korea and Northeast Asia at large. Unless the escalating tension is diffused somehow, there is an increasing danger that another military clash may re-ignite the deadly Korean war.
More recently, on November 23, there was a serious artillery duel between South and North Korea (DPRK) around the Island of Yonpyong in the West Sea. Another major incident happened on March 26, 2010, with the mysterious sinking of the South Korean warship, the Cheonan, in the same West Sea. South Korea (ROK) blamed the North for the sinking, but the latter denied its responsibility and accused the South for fabricating the evidences against it.
In the midst of this barrage of charges and counter-charges, it is important for the American people to sort out the truth and try to understand what really happened in the two incidents. It is far more difficult to find the truth of the March incident because of the complicated technical issues involved in the case and the withholding of certain information (e.g., communication record) by the South Korean government.
However, it is possible to find out about the basic facts concerning the artillery duel of November 23 by putting together all the news reports on the case, including the ones from North Korea, even though the U.S. officials and mainstream media have been spreading much misinformation and one-sided accusations against DPRK.
Basic Facts on the Artillery Duel
1) On November 22, 2010 (Korean time), South Korean military began another major combined “war game” called “Hoguk,” involving some 70,000 troops, 50 warships, 500 warplanes, and 600 tanks in the areas of Seoul, surrounding provinces and the West Sea. The war game included large-scale aerial and naval drills, including landing operations in the West Sea. This military exercise continued until November 30.
2) North Korea (DPRK) claims that it warned the South Korean military several times — and more specifically on November 23, 8:00 a.m. — that, if the ROK military fired live artillery shells inside the territorial waters of North Korea, it would take a prompt retaliatory strike in response (according to the statement of the DPRK Foreign Ministry of November 24).
3) Despite this clear warning, on November 23, the South Korean marines stationed on the Yonpyong Island started their live fire drills from 10 a.m., firing about 3,500 rounds, using 11 different weapons. Starting around 1:00 p.m., they began firing 150 rounds of powerful K-9 artillery shells into the 12-mile territorial water of North Korea. At 2:34 p.m., in angry response, the North Korean Army fired back 150 rounds at the South Korean artillery unit on the Island. Then, the South Korean marines fired back at the North Korean positions across the Island, which is 7.5 miles away from the North Korean coast. In turn, the North Korean military fired back 20 more rounds.
4) In this exchange of artillery fires, two South Korean soldiers and two civilian laborers working on the military base were killed, and about 18 others (including 15 soldiers) were injured. The number of casualties on the North Korean side is unknown at this time, although there is an unconfirmed report that one officer was killed and two soldiers were wounded.
5) Following the artillery duel, President Obama ordered the dispatch of the George Washington, a nuclear-powered aircraft carrier (carrying 75 warplanes and a crew of over 6,000), and other warships to conduct another joint U.S.-ROK war game in the West Coast of Korea from November 28 to December 1, 2010. North Korea and China protested against this new “war game.”
Real Culprit for the Current Tensions in Korea
The November 28 war game was in addition to the several other joint U.S.-ROK military exercises that already took place in Korea this summer. Thus, it is apparent that these war games have been deliberately planned and staged by the United States and South Korea to put maximum pressure on North Korea so that the latter could either implode or strike out violently. In other words, the hardliners in South Korea and the U.S. are seeking a regime change or collapse in North Korea at this time, but this is a dangerous confrontation policy that can easily get out of control.
The underlying problem for the lingering military tensions in Korea is the continuing state of war that goes back to the Korean war of 1950-53. Although the Armistice Agreement of 1953 drew a military demarcation line (MDL) on the land, the military representatives from North Korea and the United States could not agree on a maritime boundary in the West Sea. North Korea claimed a 12-mile territorial water from the coast, but the U.S. and South Korea insisted on three miles. However, there was an implied understanding that the MDL would extend to the sea from the end point of the DMZ on the land.
After signing the Armistice Agreement, the U.S. military commander in Korea drew a unilateral line called “the Northern Limit Line” (a.k.a. NLL) in the West Sea that intruded into the 12-mile territorial water of the DPRK. It is widely known that this line was drawn by Gen. Mark Clark on August 30, 1953, but there is no clear evidence of that. In fact, a CIA report on NLL states that this line was “established in a 14 January 1965 order of the Commander Naval Forces, Korea.” The NLL hugs the west coast of the DPRK at about three miles of distance from the coast, except two areas where the line is even shorter than three miles. According to the declassified CIA document, “the sole purpose of the NLL was to avoid incidents by forbidding UNC naval units to sail north of it without special permission.” However, the South Korean government has been regarding the NLL as a de facto boundary between South and North Korea because it enhances the ROK’s economic (fishing) and security interests.
The U.S. Commander apparently never notified the NLL to North Korea, and the DPRK never recognized it. Even Henry Kissinger, the U.S. Secretary of State in 1975, admitted in his confidential communication with the U.S. Embassy in Seoul that the NLL is “clearly contrary to international law and the USG law of the sea position.” He even supported the DPRK position as follows: “Armistice provides two sides must respect each other’s ”˜contiguous waters’, which negotiating history indicates would mean as maximum 12 miles.” Incidentally, under the 1982 U.N. Convention on the Law of the Sea, each state is entitled to claim 12-mile territorial water. Both Koreas signed this treaty, but South Korea is denying the DPRK’s right to claim the 12 miles.
After a naval clash with the South in June 1999, North Korea attempted to negotiate with the U.S. military command at Panmunjom a military demarcation line in the West Sea. However, the U.S. side rejected the proposal due to the insistence of ROK to keep the NLL, and this forced North Korea to proclaim its MDL in the West Sea unilaterally on September 2, 1999. This line goes out straight to the sea, perpendicular from the western end of the DMZ, but it provides a sea passage to the five islands which falls under the military control of the “U.N. Command” according to the Armistice Agreement. North Korea declared that the sea waters above its line would be defended as its territorial waters. Since then, there have been several naval clashes in the West Sea of Korea — either to defend the NLL by South Korea or to defend the MDL in the West Sea by North Korea.
The Path to Permanent Peace
As seen from the brief history of the arbitrary NLL, the U.S. government also bears heavy responsibility in all these military clashes in Korea because it is a signatory to the Armistice Agreement and of its unique role in controlling the South Korean military. Although sounding ridiculous, the U.S. Commander in South Korea at this time wears three hats: commander of the U.S. Forces in Korea, commander of the so-called “U.N. Command,” and commander of ROK-U.S. Combined Forces. Thus, the U.S. Commander is responsible for upholding the terms of the Korean War Armistice Agreement of 1953, including “a complete cessation of all hostilities in Korea by all armed forces under their control” (Article 12) and withdrawing “all—military forces, supplies, and equipment from the rear and the coastal islands and waters of Korea of the other side” (Article 13b). In clear violation of these armistice provisions, the U.S. Commander in South Korea not only allowed the ROK forces in initiating the massive, threatening artillery fires from the Yonpyong Island but also failed to remove all the South Korean troops (about 1,000) and heavy weapons from the island.
Therefore, it is the height of hypocrisy for Secretary of State Hillary Clinton to pretend that the recent artillery duel in Korea was only due to the “provocative” and “belligerent” behavior of North Korea — ignoring the provocative behavior of the ROK military as well as the violation of the Armistice Agreement by the Obama administration and the hard-line, conservative government of Lee Myung-bak in South Korea. In fact, the current tensions in Korea could have been avoided if the Lee administration honored the previous inter-Korean agreement of October 4, 2007, which was reached during the second Korean summit. Among others, this agreement specifically mentioned the creation of a “special peace and cooperation zone in the West Sea,” including the “creation of a joint fishing zone and maritime peace zone.”
In any case, it is sad that more lives have been lost in the recent military clash. In retrospect, it seems North Korea’s direct fire on the Yonpyong Island was disproportionate to the military threats perpetrated by the South Korean marines. It is quite a relief that the North Korean military did not fire on the island again, although it warned a dire consequence, when the Lee administration staged another provocative artillery fire drill on the Yonpyong Island on December 20 with the participation of 20 U.S. troops and ROK warplanes flying over the area — threatening to fire on the North Korean positions across the island. Perhaps, it was due to the timely intervention of New Mexico Governor Bill Richardson, who happened to visit DPRK during this tense time.
For the sake of peace in Korea, all concerned parties in Korea should exercise maximum restraint in order to avoid further escalation of military tensions on the Korean Peninsula. In particular, the Obama administration should stop any further joint military exercises with ROK that threaten the peace and security of the DPRK government. Above all, we need a final resolution to the long, simmering Korean war.
In the year 2010, we observed the 60th anniversary of the outbreak of the tragic Korean war. It is high time for the concerned parties in Korea to end the Korean war now by negotiating a permanent peace treaty, which may include a provision fixing a sea boundary between South and North Korea. The DPRK government had called for a peace treaty from 1974. The Obama administration should listen to North Korea’s plea for peace, instead of trying to bring about a regime collapse in North Korea through further sanctions and war games. Unless the current hard-line policy is changed soon by both governments in Seoul and Washington, DC, the year 2011 may turn out to be far more dangerous and unpredictable in Korea.
John H. Kim is the United Nations representative for the International Fellowship of Reconciliation and the U.S. Fellowship of Reconciliation.
© 2010 by John H. Kim.