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(News Focus) N. Korea moves closer to military clash in tense sea border

All Headlines 23:27 May 27, 2009

By Kim Hyun

SEOUL, May 27 (Yonhap) -- Military tension rose sharply between South and North Korea on Wednesday as the North declared an inter-Korean armistice null and void, a move that analysts say may lead to clashes any time.

Pyongyang's nullification of the truce that stopped the 1950-1953 Korean War came a day after Seoul announced its decision to join a U.S.-led drive to stop the spread of weapons of mass destruction.

In a statement, North Korea described the current situation as tense "as in wartime" and "beyond the uncontrollable danger line of a war." The North specifically referred to the western sea border, the site of two bloody naval skirmishes in 1999 and 2002.

The North said it will no longer guarantee the safe passage of civilian ships, as well as U.S. and South Korean warships, operating along the Yellow Sea border, a resounding threat during peak crab-catching season.

"With this warning, a military clash is no more a possibility, but a reality. Words are turning into action," Paik Hak-soon, an analyst with the non-governmental Sejong Institute, said.

He noted North Korea has been following through with its warnings despite international rebukes and sanctions that were imposed on it over its April rocket launch, its withdrawal from nuclear disarmament talks and the nuclear test this week.

The sea border was unilaterally drawn by the U.S.-led United Nations Command after the 1950-53 Korean War. North Korea has rejected it as illegitimate and in 1999 redrew the border further south. But it still acknowledged South Korea's jurisdiction over several inhabited islands located in the overlapping zone.

Past skirmishes claimed the lives of scores of naval soldiers on both sides. Paik said if any skirmish recurs there, casualties will be larger due to the lack of inter-Korean communication channels.

Seoul officials have said North Korea has increased artillery training around the western border region facing the South this year. North Korean leader Kim Jong-il has inspected artillery units there every month from January to March, according to Pyongyang's media.

Analysts believe the latest warnings may also extend to the U.S. that has 28,500 soldiers deployed south of the border. The North's Panmunjom Mission to the joint security area, whose counterpart is the U.S.-led United Nations Command, said the country will no more abide by the armistice agreement, saying South Korea has already reneged on it by joining the Proliferation Security Initiative (PSI).

The North claims the U.S.-led PSI, aimed at seizing ships and planes suspected of carrying weapons of mass destruction, is in violation of the armistice that bans any form of naval blockade on the peninsula. With that view, Pyongyang threatened that Seoul's participation in the PSI would be considered a "declaration of war."

The North Korean military will "regard any hostile actions against the DPRK, including checkup and inspection of its peaceful vessels, as an unpardonable encroachment on the DPRK's sovereignty and counter them with prompt and strong military strikes," the statement said.

Analysts say North Korea may follow up by seizing South Korean fishing boats or test-firing missiles in the western waters.

Koh Yu-hwan, a professor at Dongguk University, said North Korea is certain to continue raising the stakes, but that it is also aware of the high risks.

"It won't be easy for the North to attempt a provocation that will only lead to its loss, given the superior military force of the South," he said.

Yoo Ho-yeol, a North Korea studies professor at Korea University, said North Korea has routinely claimed that the armistice is void, but now the situation is more tense due to the political deadlock.

"When clashes broke out accidentally, there were channels to resolve them. That buffer has now thinned, which can make a small incident a big clash," Yoo warned.


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