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Inter-Korean West Sea Tensions

Author: Scott A. Snyder, Senior Fellow for Korea Studies and Director of the Program on U.S.-Korea Policy
March 27, 2010

Inter-Korean West Sea Tensions - inter-korean-west-sea-tensions

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South Korean media reported March 26 that a South Korean naval vessel, the 1,200-ton ship Cheonan, sank in the West Sea (or Yellow Sea) at 9:45 p.m. local time, with 58 of 104 crew members rescued in darkness and strong winds.

News of the sinking immediately sparked speculation of North Korean involvement, and South Korea's president convened an emergency meeting and dispatched a fleet of ships to the area. Later reports have discounted North Korean involvement. Subsequent reporting in coming days will clarify whether North Korea was involved, but the response shows the extent to which developments in North Korea have its neighbors on edge.

The demarcation line between North and South Korea known as the Demilitarized Zone was a creation of the Korean armistice signed in 1953, but the negotiators of the armistice did not agree on a naval demarcation line as part of that agreement. The South Korean side declared that it would exercise sovereignty over a unilaterally declared Northern Limit Line (NLL) that included a number of South Korean-controlled islands near the thirty-eighth parallel, but that line has never been recognized by North Korea.

This circumstance has made the West Sea and the NLL flashpoints for potential inter-Korean confrontation, most notably in 1999 and 2002. Following its May 25, 2009, nuclear test, North Korea declared that it would "no longer be bound by the armistice agreement," and the deterioration of inter-Korean relations during early 2009 have raised expectations that the NLL would again be the place for an inter-Korean confrontation. Exchange of fire between vessels on November 10, 2009; an additional long-range artillery exchange on January 26 of this year; and North Korea's declaration of a "no-sail" zone in maritime areas near the contested zone have reinforced the idea that the West Sea/NLL is a flashpoint for imminent inter-Korean confrontation.

Could a new West Sea confrontation spark a broader conflict? Although an escalation beyond the West Sea is not impossible, previous incidents have remained isolated (and have not drawn direct involvement of U.S. forces stationed in Korea). In fact, given the military imbalance between the two sides and the fact that the armistice left the naval demarcation line ambiguous, periodic inter-Korean naval confrontation may have become more likely in recent years precisely because it is containable.

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