Tensions rose between North and South Korea amid a series of rare family reunions between families separated by the Korean War armistice when a North Korean patrol ship violated South Korea’s maritime border “several times Monday night.” According to Yonhap News, the ship retreated after receiving warnings from the South Korean military. The South Korean defense ministry confirmed that the South warned the patrol boat to retreat at least ten times.
Yonhap’s timeline places the incident as occurring late Monday night into Tuesday morning. The patrol boat crossed the Northern Limit Line (NLL), which demarcates an unofficial maritime frontier between the two Koreas, at around 10:46 p.m. Monday night, and eventually sailed deeper into South Korean waters. The ship ended up approximately 23 kilometers west of Yeonpyeong Island in the Yellow Sea.
South Korean defense ministry spokesman Kim Min-seok said that “The North Korean ship’s NLL violation is seen as part of military drills or an inspection of (the South Korean military).” He added that the South Korean defense ministry believes that the patrol boat “intended to test the South Korean military.”
Despite the clarity of intelligence on when and where the NLL violation took place, the South Korean defense ministry is still unsure whether the patrol boat trespassed into South Korean waters intentionally. “We are closely looking into possibilities that the North Korean intentionally violated the NLL,” Kim said. “The military decided to make public (the border trespass) because people have a lot of interest in the North Korean military’s moves,” he added.
South Korean intelligence monitors North Korean naval movements closely. In 2010, the ROKS Cheonan sank after being attacked by a North Korean torpedo fired from a midget submarine, killing 46 sailors. Later in 2010, North Korean artillery positions shelled Yeonpyeong Island following a South Korean artillery exercise. The North Korean patrol boat’s passage across the NLL brought it close to Yeonpyeong, which lies relatively isolated from the South Korean coast.
The provocation comes as South Korea and the United States begin their annual joint military drills. The North protested vehemently against the drills this year, threatening to cancel the scheduled family reunions over the matter. South Korea’s decision to immediately announce the violation sends a signal to the North that it is ready to counter any provocations. Pyongyang rejects the legitimacy of the NLL as an official border between the two Koreas.
North Korea always opposes routine exercises between South Korea and the United States, but its opposition this year has been particularly vehement. The North’s state-run Rodong Sinmun pegged the exercises as a “war rehearsal,” noting that the drills “are a vicious challenge against our efforts to improve inter-Korean ties and defuse tension on the Korean Peninsula.”