The most likely path to an escalating military conflict on the Korean peninsula lies along the Northern Limit Line. The coverage of the most recent exchange has focused on the events of last Thursday (July 22, Korean time). The North fired two rounds that fell within 150 meters of a South Korean vessel nearly ten km south of the NLL. The ROK ship returned fire in the direction of a North Korean vessel 2km north of the line. Initial reporting suggested the North Korean rounds might have been fired from shore artillery, which except for the attack on Yeonpyeong in November 2010 would have been a new development. Those claims were subsequently modified to reflect continuing uncertainty about the source of the North Korean fire.
But the sequence of moves in fact starts earlier, on Tuesday (July 20, Korean time). Rather than a pre-meditated move on the part of North Korea, the events are related to the long-standing problem of Chinese fishing along the NLL. Three North Korean military vessels briefly crossed the NLL on Tuesday and South Korea responded with warning shots. After an hour, the three ships retreated.
Two statements issued in the name of the Command of the Southwestern Front of the Korean People’s Army—the first following the events of Tuesday, the second the events of Thursday–confirm that the events were linked to fishing. From the first report:
“On 20 May alone, gangsters of the south Korean puppet navy perpetrated such a grave military provocation as firing at random at the warships of the Korean People’s Army which were on regular guard duty in the southwestern waters of the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea side and peaceable Chinese fishing boats.
This was a deliberate, grave provocative act of firing bullets and shells perpetrated by the south Korean puppet hooligans despite the fact that they were well aware warships of the KPA navy were operating to check the illegal fishing operations of Chinese civilian fishing boats in the sensitive waters…”
The first report goes on to threaten that “all warships of the south Korean puppet navy, big and small, which recklessly maneuver in the sensitive waters of the southwestern front, hot spots, will become without exception targets of the direct sighting firing by all strike means under the above-said Command.”
In the second report, issued on Friday, the Command denied that it had fired on the Southern ships on Thursday. Rather the second report seeks to turn the tables on the ROK military by claiming that it—not the North Korean forces—had been harassing Chinese fishermen. (“The confirmed fact goes to prove that warships of the puppet navy intruded deep into the waters of the DPRK side beyond the maritime guard demarcation line of the KPA side for preemptive firing under the pretext of intercepting the peaceable Chinese fishing boats and tried to convince the public that the shelling was made by the KPA.”)
Nightwatch offers up the explanation that my colleague Marc Noland also noted in an earlier post going back to 2011. The North Korean navy is both involved in fishing in its own right and also has held up Chinese fishermen for their catches and even for ransom; the most egregious case occurred almost exactly one year ago. Control of fishing grounds was even implicated in the Jang Song Thaek execution. On Tuesday, the South Koreans caught the North Koreans herding a group of Chinese fishing boats back north where they could be shaken down. On Thursday, the North retaliated.
Last year, South Korea pressed China to limit illegal fishing for crab that could trigger such cycles. Clearly, the problem remains, particularly during the lucrative crab season.