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Northern Limit Line (NLL) West Sea Naval Engagements

The Northern Limit Line has existed for many decades, and both South and North Korea have acknowledged that a practical separation line exists in the waters off the east and west coasts of the Korean peninsula. However, South Korea claims the NLL as the legal boundary, while the DPRK claims a line much futher to the south, which encompasses many islands effectively occupied by the South. Clashes in the disputed waters of the Yellow Sea have happened before, especially during crab fishing season. In 1999 and 2002, skirmishes resulted in casualties on both sides.


On 10 August 2011, North Korean artillery fire was reported by South Korean forces in the area of the Northern Limit Line. It was unclear whether the fire, reported to have originated from Yongmae island, were intended to land on the DPRK or ROK side of the boundary. One the shells was reported to have landed near Yeonpyeong island. It was unclear whether or not the DPRK artillery fire had been part of a training exercise. An hour later, South Korean forces fired shells into the disputed area in response after radioing a warning on an internationally recognized frequency. A second round of DPRK shelling was later reported.

The DPRK response, also on 10 August 2011, said that the ROK had mistaken "normal blasting in the area of South Hwanghae Province," said to be part of a development project, for artillery fire. It added that the ROK had responded with their own artillery fire without adequately verifying the nature of the disturbance.


In the one of the most serious flare ups since the Korean War of the early 1950s, on 23 November 2010 North and South Korea exchanged artillery fire. At least two South Korean marines and two civilians were killed and several dozen others, and some civilians, were injured after North Korea shelled a small South Korean island. Yeonpyeong has more than 1,000 residents, some of whom headed into bunkers. Others began fleeing in boats.

The Pohang-class corvette PCC-772 Chonan [aka Cheonanham] sank in the Yellow Sea late on Friday 26 March 2010, in a tense maritime area disputed by North Korea. The incident involving the vessel with a crew of 104 forced South Korean President Lee Myung-bak to convene two emergency security meetings. The president ordered a "quick and thorough" investigation into the incident. At least 46 South Korean military personnel were missing soon after one of the South's naval patrol vessels sank.


South Korea accused North Korea on Thursday 04 June 2009 of violating the western sea border between the countries. A North Korean patrol boat crossed the Yellow Sea border at 14:47 local time (05:47 GMT) near the Northern Limit Line (NLL), where Pyongyang said a week earlier it would be dangerous for South Korean vessels to operate. The vessel turned back after a verbal warning from a South Korean warship.

North Korea, which sparked international alarm with a recent nuclear test, warned the South on Wednesday 27 May 2009 of an immediate military strike if attempts are made to intercept ships under a US-led non-proliferation deal. The military's statement, released by the Korean Central News Agency and translated by South Korea's Yonhap, said the country "will be no longer bound to the armistice agreement" that ended the 1950-53 war, and that the peninsula will be soon return to a state of war if the armistice is not adhered to. It also said the North "will not guarantee the legal status" of five South Korean islands near the disputed inter-Korean border in the Yellow Sea, which was the scene of bloody naval clashes in 1999 and 2002.

On 10 November 2009, South Korean officials reported that a North Korean naval vessel had crossed the Northern Limit Line and had been fired on by South Korean warships. No casualties had been reported, but the North Korean vessel was reported to have been seriously damaged in the incident. Authorities on both sides noted that the North Korean vessel had been damaged during the incident. Lee Gi-sik, a senior officer with the South Korean Joint Chiefs of Staff, said a North Korean vessel crossed into the South's waters several times around midday. He said a South Korean patrol boat fired warning shots, and then was fired on directly by the North Korean vessel. He said South Korea returned fire and drove the ship back to the North. Lee says there were no South Korean casualties from the skirmish, which lasted only a matter of minutes.

North Korean authorities denied that the vessel had crossed the Northern Limit Line, saying that South Korean ships had fired without provocation across the border. North Korean officials insisted that the ship was on the northern side of the border when it was attacked without provocation. North Korean official media carried demands from the government that South Korea apologize for what Pyongyang describes as a "grave armed provocation." North Korean authorities suggested that the vessel had been investigating an unknown object on its side of the Northern Limit Line. Illegal Chinese fishing boats were in the area, indicating North Korea may have been chasing them out of its waters.


On 01 November 2004 South Korea's patrol boats fired on North Korean naval vessels after they crossed a disputed maritime border. In the latest incident along the tense frontier, the South Korean navy fired several warning shots after three boats from the North crossed the Northern Limit Line. South Korean defense officials say the North Korean navy vessels did not respond to radio warnings to back off. They say the North's boats retreated after nearly an hour without firing a shot in return.

South Korean officials say there were about 80 Chinese fishing boats in the area at the time. The North Korean vessels told South Korean authorities via radio that they were chasing illegal fishing boats and denied crossing the border. The incident came just days after holes were discovered in fences in the Demilitarized Zone dividing the two countries, setting off an alert in the South for possible North Korean infiltrators.

This incident came the same day that South Korea took full responsibility for guarding its side of the Demilitarized Zone. The United States withdrew its troops from the border, ending patrols there that date back to 1953, when the Korean War ended with an armistice, but no peace treaty.

Some saw these actions as an attempt by the communist state to stir up South Korea. They're trying to provoke South Koreans. North Korea may test South Korean capabilities to deal with these incidents. If South Korea counters, North Korea may say "oh, North Korea cannot talk with the South Korean government."

As regards the South Korean Navy's warning shots fired in response to a North Korean patrol ship that infringed on the Northern Limit Line in the West Sea, the People's Navy Command lashed out at the South, saying that "it constitutes an anti-nationalist act that the South Korean military engaged in a provocative armed action, which might have sparked another deadly exchange of fire in the West Sea, at a time when the U.S. is resorting to extreme maneuvers to annihilate us." (Nov. 2, Central Broadcasting Station)/


In October 2003 South Korea hunted - without success - for two North Korean submarines that were thought to have crossed into the South's waters. South Korea launched exhaustive but fruitless search-and-destroy missions around its coast after a US military tip-off about two North Korean submarines.


Shortly before 10:00 in the morning on June 28, 2002, two North Korean (NK) Navy patrol boats crossed the Northern Limit Line (NLL) in Korea's West Sea. At approximately 10:25, as Republic of Korea (ROK) Navy ships approached, the North Koreans opened fire, provoking the South Korean Navy to return fire. By approximately 10:50, both NK ships had moved back across the NLL. One of the NK ships was seen to be heavily damaged and on fire. Four South Korean sailors were killed and 18 wounded during the exchange of fire. A disabled ROK ship sank while being towed back to shore.

Gen. Leon LaPorte, Commander in Chief, UNC, CFC and USFK, expressed his sorrow at the deaths of the South Korean sailors. "It is a tragedy that these young men had to sacrifice their lives defending South Korea. My heart goes out to their families," the general said. ROK and U.S. Forces in Korea are working closely to reduce tensions on the peninsula related to this serious incident. The United Nations Command requested a General Officer Meeting at Panmunjom to discuss the Armistice violation.

Things turned for the better in the wake of the June gun battle in the Yellow Sea that killed four South Koreans and left another missing and presumed dead. Since then, Pyongyang issued something close to an apology, initiated ministerial-level meetings and sent several hundred athletes to compete in the Asian Games hosted by South Korea.

On 16 November 2002 the South Korean Navy fired warning shots at a North Korean patrol boat that crossed a disputed sea border into southern waters. The North Korean boat retreated to North Korean waters without returning fire. A similar incident occurred on five days later on 20 November 2002.


North Korea caused the naval confrontation between the two Koreas in the West Sea, crossing the Northern Limit Line (NLL) in June 1999. The confrontation cast doubt on Pyongyang's intentions to engage in dialogue with Seoul. North Korea did not want to wage a war, but caused the confrontation on purpose. North Korea made the NLL a disputed issue through continuous military confrontation in the buffer zone, until the general-level talks on June 15, 1999.

The North must have judged that there would be no chance for military collision once the talks began. Furthermore, it took into account that if both sides withdrew from the disputed area through mediation by the US, the North would be able to make the NLL a disputed zone where the South could not maintain sole territorial jurisdiction. Threatened by the South Korean Navy's persistent ramming operation, the North Korean patrol boats fired first, spurring a naval confrontation.

North Korea lost the battle and failed to carry out its original plan. Due to the South Korean Navy's counteraction, North Korea not only failed to make the NLL a disputed zone, but also experienced a defeat in the first battle since the Korean War of 1950. The North was equally shocked by the gap between the military capability of the two Koreas. Despite Kim Jong-il's propaganda about the North's "great military power," the North Korean Navy was totally overwhelmed by the South. This stunned North Korean political and military leaders. Naturally, the hard-liners in the North Korean military could have insisted on revenge, because the defeat was so fatal to them who vowed to become "guns and bombs" for Kim Jong-il and promoted the Kamikaze spirit, a suicidal attack.

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Page last modified: 11-08-2011 11:35:03 ZULU