In a pointed example of escalating tensions between two Asian nations, North Korea on Monday fired more than 100 rounds of artillery into the waters off its west coast, according to South Korea’s Defense Ministry.
The move came one day after the North seized a South Korean fishing boat and its seven-man crew, claiming it had violated North Korea’s exclusive economic zone.
In recent days, North Korea had vowed “strong physical retaliation” in response to South Korea’s launching last week of five days of naval training exercises near the disputed sea border between the two countries. The exercises ended Monday.
Seoul had also participated last month in a series of joint naval exercises with U.S. forces. Pyongyang has routinely said that it considers such operations to be preparations for an invasion.
Analysts said it was still too early to categorize the boat seizure and the shell firings as any comprehensive North Korean response.
“That’s what they said they were going to do — come back with some physical response — but if that’s what they had in mind, it’s too hard to tell at this point,” said Daniel Pinkston, an expert in North-South relations for the International Crisis Group think tank. He said it was important to know where the fishing boat had been taken into custody.
Contrary to earlier reports, some of the artillery shells fired Monday fell on the southern side of the line, officials said.
The incident is expected to stir up even more anxiety on the Korean peninsula. Tensions have remained high since late March, when a South Korean military ship was apparently torpedoed while on patrol near the naval border, killing 46 crewmen. Although a South Korean-led investigation of the incident has pinpointed North Korea as responsible for the sinking, Pyongyang has denied involvement.
During a briefing late Monday, the South Korean Defense Ministry confirmed that the North had fired shells into the Yellow Sea and that authorities had evacuated fishing boats in the area, according to a source who asked not to be identified.
North Korea first fired about 10 shots around 5:30 p.m., then 120 shots between 5:52 and 6:14 p.m., South Korean officials said. The South’s navy raised its alert status and sent warning broadcasts to the North at 5:49 p.m. officials said.
Earlier Monday, South Korea had demanded the release of both the 41-ton fishing boat and its crew — four South Korean and three Chinese men. The crew had been briefly questioned at sea Sunday before being taken to North Korea’s eastern port of Kimchaek, according to the South Korean coast guard.
South Korean officials said Monday that they were trying to check whether the boat had entered North Korean waters. The area is also where the navies of the Koreas fought three gun battles in recent years.
South Korean Unification Ministry spokesman Chun Hae-sung said Pyongyang had yet to provide any information on the fishermen.
“The government yesterday urged North Korea to take swift action [on the men] in line with an international law and practice, and I’m reiterating that,” he said Monday.
Chinese officials expressed concern over the seizure, adding that diplomats in North Korea are verifying the report with local authorities, the New China News Agency said.
In 2009, four South Korean fishermen were detained for a month after allegedly entering North Korean waters.
Times staff writer Glionna reported from Yichang and Times Seoul Bureau news assistant Kim from Seoul.