top of page

The Artillery Duel in Korea

Year 2010 faded away with a considerable increase in 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 Nov. 23, there was a serious artillery duel between South Korea (Republic of Korea or ROK) and North Korea (Democratic People’s Republic of Korea or DPRK), off the island of Yonpyong in the West Sea. Another major incident happened earlier in 2010 with the mysterious sinking of the South Korean warship, the Cheonan, in the same West Sea on March 26. South Korea blamed the North for the sinking, but the latter denied its responsibility and accused the South of fabricating the evidence 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 these two incidents. It is far more difficult to discern the truth about the March incident because of the complicated technical issues involved in the case, and the withholding of certain information (e.g. Cheonan‘s communication record) by the South Korean government.

However, it is possible to know the real circumstances concerning the artillery duel of November 23 by putting together all the news reports on the case, including the one from North Korea, even though the U.S. officials and mainstream media have spread much misinformation and one-sided accusations against the DPRK.

The facts about the artillery duel

On November 22, (Korean time), the 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.

North Korea (DPRK) claims that it warned the South Korean military several times and more specifically on November 23, on 8 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 (statement of DPRK Foreign Ministry of Nov. 24,

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 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. About 60 rounds hit the island. Then, the South Korean artillery fired back at the North Korean positions across the island, which is about seven miles away from the North Korean coast. In turn, the North Korean military fired back 20 more rounds.

In this exchange of artillery fires, two South Korean soldiers and two civilian laborers working on the military base were killed, and about 18 (15 soldiers) others 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.

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 off the west coast of Korea from November 28 to December 1. Furthermore, the ROK, led by the hard-line Myung-Bak Lee administration, also beefed up its marine forces and weapon systems on the five ROK-controlled islands, including Yonpyong Island, located in the West Sea.

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 took place in Korea during the summer of 2010. Thus, it is apparent that these war games have been deliberately planned and staged by the U.S. and South Korea to put maximum pressure on North Korea so that the latter could either implode or strike out violently. The hardliners in South Korea and the U.S. seem to be seeking a regime change or collapse in North Korea through this confrontational policy, one that could easily get out of control.

The underlying cause of 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 U.S. could not agree on a maritime boundary in the West Sea. North Korea claimed a 12-mile wide territorial water boundary around its coast, but the U.S. and South Korea insisted on three miles. Nevertheless, there was an implied understanding that the MDL would extend to the sea from the end point of the DMZ on the land.

However, sometime after the Armistice Agreement, the U.S. military commander in South Korea drew a unilateral line called “the Northern Limit Line” (NLL) in the West Sea that intruded into the 12-mile territorial waters of the DPRK. It is widely known in Korea that this line was drawn by General 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 DPRK at about three miles distant from the coast, except at two areas where the line is even less 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 regarded the NLL as a de facto boundary between South and North Korea because it enhanced ROK’s economic (fishing) and security interests.

The U.S. Commander apparently never notified North Korea of the NLL, and the DPRK has never recognized it. Even Henry Kissinger, the Secretary of State in 1975, admitted in his confidential communication with the U.S. Embassy in Seoul that NLL is “clearly contrary to international law and the USG law of the sea position.” He even supported the position of the DPRK by admitting that “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 UN Convention on the Law of the Sea, each state is entitled to claim a 12-mile territorial water. Both Koreas signed this treaty; nevertheless, South Korea has been irrationally contesting the DPRK’s right to claim the 12 miles.

North Korea crossed the NLL on many occasions (e.g. in 1973, 1981, 1991, and 1996). After a naval clash with the South in June 1999, North Korea attempted to negotiate a military demarcation line in the West Sea with U.S. military representatives at a meeting in Panmunjom (the joint military installation in the DMZ where the Armistice was signed). However, the U.S. side rejected the Northern proposal due to the ROK representatives’ insistence that the NLL be retained.

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 fall under the military control of the “UN Command” under the Armistice Agreement. North Korea declared that the waters above its sea MDL would be defended as its territorial waters. Since then, there have been several naval clashes in the West Sea of Korea—either by South Korea in defending the NLL, or by North Korea in defending its MDL.

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 the line was drawn by the U.S. military, which is a signatory to the Armistice Agreement on behalf of those countries fighting against DPRK. The U.S. also has a unique role in controlling the South Korean military. Although it sounds 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 “UN 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 to initiate the massive, threatening artillery fires from the Yonpyong Island, but also failed to remove all the South Korean troops (about 1,000) and heavy weapon systems from the island.

Therefore, it is the height of hypocrisy for 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 U.S. military’s own violations of the Armistice Agreement.

In fact, the current tensions in Korea could have been avoided if the conservative 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 retrospect, it seems North Korea’s direct fire on Yonpyong Island was disproportionate to the military threats perpetrated by the South Korean marines. In any case, it is quite a relief that the North Korean military did not fire on the island again, although it warned of dire consequences, when the Lee administration staged another provocative artillery live-fire drill on Yonpyong Island on December 20. This drill included participation by some 20 U.S. troops and several ROK warplanes, which flew over the area–threatening to fire on the North Korean positions across the island. Perhaps, North Korea’s restraint was due to the timely intervention of Governor Bill Richardson (of New Mexico), who happened to visit the DPRK during this tense time.

For the sake of peace in Korea, all concerned parties in Korea should exercise maximum restraint 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 North Korean government. Above all, we need a final resolution to the long, simmering Korean War by negotiating a peace treaty, which may include a provision fixing a sea boundary between South and North Korea.

*John H. Kim is an attorney practicing in New York and is a veteran of the U.S. Army. He volunteers for several non-profit groups.


bottom of page