North and South Korean naval patrol boats exchanged fire on Tuesday, according to South Korea’s Defense Ministry and Joint Chiefs of Staff.
The incident occurred near the Northern Limit Line (NLL), the de facto maritime border between the two Koreas. A statement released by the Republic of Korea (ROK) Joint Chiefs of Staff said said the incident began when the North Korean patrol boat crossed into South Korean waters, prompting an ROK naval patrol boat in the area to send warning messages and fire a warning shot in an attempt to get the North Korean vessel to retreat back across the maritime border. Instead of retreating, however, the North Korean vessel responded to the warning shot by firing at the ROK naval patrol boat.
The ROK naval patrol began firing at the North Korean vessel in response. A South Korean Defense Ministry spokesperson clarified that neither boat fired directly at the other and ultimately neither sustained any damages. The North Korean vessel returned across the border about ten minutes after the episode began. The ROK boat fired around 90 rounds altogether.
“We are now watching North Korean troop movements and tightening vigilance against any additional provocations,” the spokesperson added, according to AFP.
The incident is fairly unremarkable in and of itself. North Korea refuses to recognize the Northern Limit Line as legitimate, and incursions are frequently. Maritime vessels from the two sides also regularly exchange fire during these incursions, although inter-Korean naval clashes near the maritime border have only turned deadly three times since 1999, according to Bloomberg News.
What makes this week’s incident more notable is that it comes just days after a high-ranking North Korean delegation visited South Korea. Although the stated purpose of their visit was to attend the closing of the Asian Games, they met with South Korean officials and the two sides agreed to resume senior-level talks starting next month, with the intention to begin holding these talks on a regular basis.
Thus, inter-Korean relations appeared to be on the upswing before the exchange of fire on Tuesday. Nonetheless, the naval skirmish is extremely unlikely to derail the talks planned for next month or even have much impact on how each side approaches them. It’s quite possible that the North Korean naval boats incursion into South Korean waters occurred on the orders of a low-level naval commander in the field, and is therefore not indicative of Pyongyang’s strategic thinking at the moment. Even if the decision was made at a more senior and political level, North Korea has a history of following diplomatic breakthroughs with limited military provocations that are seen by many as an attempt to test South Korean resolve.
In sum, the exchange of fire was likely an anomaly for inter-Korean relations that are otherwise currently on the upswing.