North Korea test fired artillery shells into waters near a disputed border yesterday, provoking a South Korean volley of warning shots, raising tensions between the rivals as they inch toward disarmament talks.
South Korea issued a verbal warning after three shots landed near the tense maritime border at about 1pm and then in a tit-for-tat, the South returned three artillery rounds toward the same area about an hour later.
The South’s response came after the government was heavily criticized for failing to react with force last year when North Korea shelled one of its islands, Yeonpyeong, in the same area.
The attack on the island was the first on civilians since the end of the 1950 to 1953 Korean War.
“It is our assessment that it was part of a training exercise by the North,” a South Korean military official said. “Three shots were heard. Our assessment is one shell landed near the NLL [Northern Limit Line]. Accordingly we fired three shots back.”
Explaining why the South took an hour to respond, a defense official said: “We could not get visual confirmation about where the North’s shells landed and we needed to use equipment to assess where they landed.”
He said there was no unusual activity in the North indicating imminent aggression.
Fishing boats in the vicinity were called to port and Yeonpyeong residents were evacuated to emergency shelters, media reports said.
Financial markets barely reacted to the incident.
The South Korean military official said it was unclear at this point if any of the North Korean shells had landed on the South’s side of the NLL, the disputed maritime border.
The NLL was unilaterally drawn up by the US military at the end of the Korean War and it has been the scene of several skirmishes over the past decade.
In November, the North fired about 150 shells at Yeonpyeong, which is near the NLL, killing four people, including two civilians.
South Korean forces took nearly 15 minutes to respond to that attack and then they only returned fire in a way seen as disproportionately weak.
Tensions on the peninsula have subsequently eased after last year’s attacks and, last month, the two Koreas and the US discussed ways to restart talks on disarming North Korea’s nuclear program in return for ending its economic and political isolation.