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Koreas narrowly avert skirmish as N. Korean shells land in its own waters

All Headlines 16:19 January 27, 2010

By Shin Hae-in

SEOUL, Jan. 27 (Yonhap) -- The South Korean navy on Wednesday responded to North Korea's firing of artillery shells with warning shots instead of counterattacks, as the shells landed in the North's own waters, military officials here said.

"We acted upon engagement principles," Lee Gi-shik, a senior officer at Seoul's Joint Chiefs of Staff (JCS), explained. "If it fires into our territory, we do the same. If not, we don't have to either."

He was answering a question on why the South did not respond with a counterattack, but fired only warning shots.

North Korea fired about 30 artillery shells from 9:05 a.m. through 10:16 a.m., and the shells landed about 2.7 kilometers north of the Northern Limit Line (NLL), the de facto inter-Korean maritime borderline in the Yellow Sea. It was within the boundaries of the areas the communist state previously declared to be "no-sail zones," according to the JCS.

The South Korean navy responded by firing about 100 shoreline Vulcan cannons with a range of 3-4 km as "warning shots" because the North Korean shells landed on its own waters. No casualties or injuries were reported.

South Korea had acted upon its "rules of engagement" on Nov. 10 last year when a North Korean ship violated the sea border, provoking a brief naval clash between the two Koreas who are technically still at war as the 1950-53 conflict ended in a truce.

Under the rules, which were simplified for efficiency in 2004, South Korea shot a North Korean vessel 15 times, causing the ship to retreat back to port in flames. South Korea simplified the engagement rules to three phases from the previous five in 2004, under which its navy is able to make a counterattack against the North after sending a warning message and firing a warning shot.

The rules are based on "necessity and proportional principles," officials explain, under which the military does not attack unless there is an absolute need, and responds only by a similar degree.

"In other words, we return the exact amount we received," said Park Sung-woo, head of the JCS press relations bureau. "These principles are there to prevent stirring unnecessary tensions with excessive countermeasures."

"We would have made a counterattack if the shells flew toward the west (of the NLL into the South Korean territorial waters), but it landed on north side," Lee of the JCS had said in an earlier press briefing. "Our cannon shots also landed on our side of the waters."

There is no guarantee that North Korea will avoid counterattacks from Seoul, however, especially as the communist state has ignored warnings from South Korea and vows to continue the firings.

Calling the artillery firing part of an "annual military drill," Pyongyang said in a statement earlier Wednesday that such drills "will go on in the same waters in the future too," according to its Korean Central News Agency.

"We will act upon our exchange fire principles, however, should North Korea cross the line. We are fully prepared for all circumstances and are on high alert," Lee of Seoul's JCS said. "The extent of our counterattack will be decided based on the extent of North Korea's provocations."

The sea border clash comes two days after North Korea declared the waters near the South's northernmost islands of Baeknyeong and Daecheong in the Yellow Sea as no-sail zones, raising tensions after indicating a renewed will to return to the multinational negotiations over its nuclear disarmament. North Korea, however, has said that international sanctions must be lifted before it returns to the talks.

The no-sail zones overlap with the NLL, which was drawn by the United States-led United Nations Command at the end of the Korean War and has never been recognized by Pyongyang. The communist state unilaterally set up a "peacetime firing zone" in an area just south of the NLL last month.

Analysts here say the latest provocative moves by Pyongyang indicate its attempt to increase leverage as it prepares to return to the denuclearization-for-aid six party talks with the South, the U.S., Japan, Russia and China.

hayney@yna.co.kr
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