Tensions increased between North and South Korea as the two countries exchanged fire near the Northern Limit Line (NLL), Northeast of Yeonpyeong Island yesterday afternoon.
Seoul’s military reported that North Korea twice fired shells near the Yellow Sea border, with one artillery shell landing near the NLL at 1:00 pm. South Korea retaliated with three warning shots in response.
Two more artillery shells from North Korea were detected at 7:46 pm near the border, which were countered by more warning shots from South Korea.
“We fired to warn them,” said a ministry spokesman. “We are watching the situation carefully and maintain our readiness.”
Korean Central News Agency (KCNA), Pyongyang’s official news source denied that there was a military training exercise, reporting that the shots were part of a “normal blasting…as part of the brisk construction of a gigantic object aimed at improving the standard of people’s living.”
Military authorities believe that the provocation is linked to the joint South Korea-U.S. military exercises due to take place starting on August 16, which the news agency also mentioned: “The DPRK side sent an open letter to the US and the South Korean authorities… urging them to cancel their projected Ulji Freedom Guardian joint military exercises this year.”
This event follows seemingly improving relations, with North Korea expressing interest in restarting six-nation nuclear disarmament talks. Both North and South Korea sent nuclear representatives to hold talks in Bali last month. A North Korean spokesperson was also sent to New York to meet with US officials.
Tensions between North and South Korea were at a height last November after the North fired artillery shells at Yeonpyeong island, killing 4 South Koreans, 2 of which were civilians. Since last year’s incident, the number of troops on Yeonpyeong have been increased and the South has said it would respond more forcefully in the future.
The two sides technically remain at war, ending hostilities with a cease fire rather than a peace treaty in 1953. However, the waters surrounding Yeonpyeong remain subject to different claims. While the NLL was drawn unilaterally by the UN in 1953, the boundary line is not officially accepted by North Korea.
Report: South Korea Returns Fire After Shots From North [NY Times, 10 Aug 2011]
Report: N. Korea twice fires shells near border, says S. Korea military [Channel News Asia, 11 Aug 2011]
In other news, the Chinese Navy began the testing of its first aircraft carrier on Wednesday. The aircraft carrier was formerly a Soviet warship, called the Varyag. According to Beijing, it has been refurbished for “research and training” and poses no threat to China’s neighbours.
The state-run news agency, Xinhua, explained that building a stronger navy is an appropriate step to match China’s rising importance: “building a strong navy that is commensurate with China's rising status is a necessary step and an inevitable choice for the country to safeguard its increasingly globalised national interests”.
Analysis: Commentary: No need to be unsettled over China’s first aircraft carrier [Xinhua, 10 Aug 2011]
Meanwhile, on the same day that China began the testing of the aircraft
carrier, Taiwan displayed its most advanced Hsiung Feng III missile at a
defence exhibition which has been hailed by Taiwanese military experts
as an “aircraft carrier killer”.
Taiwan was not the only state concerned about Beijing’s naval ambitions and lack of transparency concerning its military acquisitions. Yesterday, the US asked China to explain its need for an aircraft carrier: "We would welcome any kind of explanation that China would like to give
for needing this kind of equipment," U.S. State Department spokesperson
Victoria Nuland said. "This is part of our larger concern that China is not as transparent as other countries," she added.
Report:US Seeks Transparency on China's first aircraft carrier [The Times of India, 11 Aug 2011]
Japan has also criticised China in its annual defence report, released in early August, over China’s increased assertiveness concerning its territorial claims as well as its military build up.
In the past year, China has had run-ins with Japan, Vietnam and the Philippines over disputed territories in the South China Sea and the East China Sea.
Report: China’s first aircraft carrier starts sea trials [Jakarta Post, 10 Aug 2011]
Report & Analysis: China’s first aircraft carrier ‘starts sea trials’ [BBC, 10 Aug 2011]
Report: China launches aircraft carrier, Taiwan a missile [TODAY, 11 Aug 2011]