North Korea fired more than 100 rounds of artillery across its maritime border with South Korea into the Yellow Sea on Monday, prompting the South to fire back and scramble fighter planes in response to the drill, reports said.
Pyongyang’s three-hour live-fire exercise comes amid ongoing joint South Korean-U.S. military drills in the region and follows the North’s launch of missiles last week and threats to conduct a “new form” of nuclear weapons test over the weekend.
North Korea fired some 500 shells beginning at 12:15 p.m. on Monday, more than 100 of which landed in South Korean waters, according to defense officials in Seoul.
The South responded by firing more than 300 rounds into North Korean waters and scrambling F-15s on its side of the maritime border, officials said.
"The South Korean and U.S. forces have stepped up their surveillance and vigilance with increased military assets in all parts of the nation to prepare for possible provocations," South Korea’s Yonhap news agency quoted defense ministry spokesman Kim Min-seok as saying.
"If North Korea uses the live-fire drill as an excuse to launch provocations near South Korean islands and shores, we will sternly respond."
Residents on five front-line South Korean islands spent several hours in shelters during the firing, and ferry service linking the islands to the mainland was temporarily halted, according to reports.
A presidential spokesperson from Seoul said that South Korea would be “fully prepared to resolutely respond to further provocations from North Korea” and that the military would “take measures to secure the safety of residents” on islands in the Yellow Sea and near demilitarized zones.
In November 2010, North Korea shelled Yeonpyeong Island just south of the sea boundary, killing four people and triggering concerns of a full-scale conflict.
The maritime boundary is not recognized by Pyongyang, which argues it was unilaterally drawn by U.S.-led United Nations forces after the 1950-53 Korean War.
Monday’s exchange of fire drew concerns from the international community, which urged restraint amidst a ratcheting up of tensions on the Korean peninsula.
White House National Security Council spokesman Jonathan Lalley called North Korea’s recent actions, including the firing of artillery rounds into South Korean waters, “dangerous and provocative” and said the country’s threats would only isolate it further, according to a report by the Reuters news agency.
"We remain steadfast in our commitment [to] the defense of our allies and remain in close coordination with both the Republic of Korea and Japan," Lalley said.
The report said that Russia had also voiced concern on Monday over the exchange of fire and threats by Pyongyang that it may conduct a new nuclear test.
"We are worried about the mutual toughening of rhetoric, including the declaration by North Korea that it could conduct a new nuclear test," Russia’s Foreign Ministry said in a statement urging restraint and criticizing the U.S. for holding military exercises with South Korea which it said were aggravating the situation.
North Korea’s drill coincided with ongoing joint U.S.-South Korean training which ends on April 18 and is part of a series of annual exercises.
Pushing for talks
Pyongyang took the unusual step of announcing to Seoul its intentions to hold the live-fire exercise, leading analysts to suggest that the move was an expression of frustration at a lack of improvement in ties with the international community, rather than a prelude to military action.
Yonhap reported that North Korea had notified the South by fax early on Monday that it would conduct the drill in the Yellow Sea, demanding that Seoul control its vessels near the region.
Pyongyang said that the move was a response to the U.N. Security Council’s condemnation of its recent missile launches and what it sees as threatening military exercises by the U.S. in the region, though both Washington and Seoul maintain that the joint operations are routine and defensive.
North Korea also accused the South of “abducting” one of its fishing boats last week and threatened to retaliate. The South said the boat had drifted into its waters and was returned after a brief detention.
Park Won-kon, a North Korea expert at the South’s Handong University, said that despite Pyongyang’s increased rhetoric, its recent actions were only an attempt to force bilateral talks with the U.S.
“The main reason for North Korea’s provocations is to resume talks with the U.S.,” Park told RFA’s Korean Service.
“However, since [ally] China is adamantly opposed to these provocations, North Korea informed the South in advance as an attempt to legitimize its strategy.”
Reuters quoted Yang Moo-jin, a professor at the University of North Korean Studies in Seoul, as saying that “the North is unlikely to be reckless enough to do anything that will lead to a sharp worsening of the situation,” in light of the highly sophisticated joint South Korean-U.S. military exercises.
"There is an element of trying to show displeasure at the South Korea-U.S. drills and to pressure the South, but it doesn't seem the North wants this to blow up into something bigger."
Threat of ‘new’ test
Six-party aid-for-disarmament talks among North Korea, China, the U.S., Russia, Japan, and South Korea have been stalled since Pyongyang walked away from the forum in 2009, stepping up its nuclear bomb-making activity and firing a series of atomic and missile tests in defiance of U.N. resolutions.
North Korea’s Foreign Ministry threatened over the weekend to carry out a ''new form'' of nuclear test in a statement carried by the official Korean Central News Agency, one year after its third nuclear test prompted the U.N. to tighten sanctions against the rogue nation.
The statement did not clarify what was meant by a ''new form'' of test, but Washington has long suspected North Korea of trying to develop nuclear devices capable of being delivered to targets atop intercontinental ballistic missiles.
The U.N. warned North Korea last week that it could face additional sanctions because of its missile tests in past weeks that flouted Security Council resolutions banning its testing of ballistic missile technology.
Reported by RFA’s Korean Service. Translated by Bong Park. Written in English by Joshua Lipes.