North Korea warns Seoul over maritime border

Thomas Lee in Financial Times, December 09, 2010

Media Source

By Christian Oliver in Seoul

North Korea has warned the US and South Korea to recognise a more southerly maritime border between the two Koreas to avoid further conflict.

Pyongyang insists that the reason it shelled the South Korean island of Yeonpyeong, killing four people, was because artillery fired from there in a drill had landed in its waters. The North Korean response marked the first time civilians had been killed through a direct assault on South Korean territory since the 1950-1953 Korean War.

North Korea’s state news agency on Thursday said the US and South Korea were trying to trigger conflict with exercises “deep inside” North Korean waters. Pyongyang’s statement is an expression of frustration that its 1999 definition of the maritime frontier is being ignored.
For 12 years, North Korea has consistently shown it is prepared to use force to stake its claim to this more southerly maritime border. It fought naval battles in the disputed waters in 1999, 2002 and 2009, killing dozens of sailors. It is also accused of sinking a South Korean corvette, the Cheonan, along the border, killing 46 people.

Michael Breen, author of a biography of Kim Jong-il, North Korea’s leader, said: “People spend a lot of time trying to guess what North Korea wants with its attacks, but they should actually just listen to what the North Koreans say. Since 1999, the thing they have been most angry about is the Northern Limit Line. That is where nearly all the violence has been.”

South Korea and US forces – who are still technically at war with the North – insist the de facto maritime border is the Northern Limit Line, which hugs the North Korean coast and keeps numerous islands on the South Korean side.

Pyongyang puts the line far to the south, following the line of the land border between the Koreas.

North Korea does not claim the islands but says they should be linked to South Korean waters by narrow maritime corridors. Therefore any artillery firing or military exercises around the islands are – according to Pyongyang – deep inside North Korean waters.

The border is legally problematic because it was not settled as part of the Korean War armistice.

Thomas Lee, a professor at Fordham Law School in the US and a former naval intelligence officer in Korea, says North Korea has a legitimate grievance about the border. He says a panel of China, Russia and the US could map out a new maritime agreement.

Seoul rejects any change, saying a more southerly border would pose a grave security risk, bringing the border perilously close to South Korea’s main international airport.