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2009/12/24 10:52 KST
NORTH KOREA NEWSLETTER NO. 86 (December 24, 2009)

*** TOPIC OF THE WEEK (Part 1)

Pyongyang Declares 'Firing Zone' along Western Sea Border

SEOUL (Yonhap) -- North Korea warned on Dec. 21 it has designated the area along the Yellow Sea border with the South a "peacetime firing zone," raising tension in a region where the two sides exchanged gunfire barely a month ago.

   Last week, North Korea accused the South Korean Navy of conducting underwater explosions close to its waters, calling it "provocation." South Korea's Joint Chief of Staffs dismissed the claim, saying the explosions were part of a routine drill conducted in South Korean waters.

   "In order to counter the reckless military provocations of the warmongers of the South Korean military," a spokesman for the Navy Command of the North's Korean People's Army (KPA) said, "our navy declares the waters on the extension of the Military Demarcation Line in the West Sea under the control of our army as a peacetime naval firing zone of coastal and island artillery units of the KPA."

   The Military Demarcation Line (MDL) refers to the line North Korea unilaterally drew just south of Northern Limit Line (NLL) in 1999 as the maritime inter-Korean border, declaring the NLL that has existed for decades unfair and void.

   "We re-clarify at home and abroad that there exists no illegal NLL except the extension of the MDL in the waters of the West Sea of Korea declared by the DPRK (North Korea)," according to the navy statement carried by the North's official Korean Central News Agency (KCNA).

   "A dangerous situation still prevails in the waters of the West Sea of Korea due to the deliberate military provocations of the warmongers of the military and conservative forces of South Korea despite our repeated warnings," the North navy said.

   "The frequent intrusions of the warmongers of the South Korean military into the territorial waters of the north side in the West Sea of Korea have recently developed into adventurous bombardments. All fishing boats and warships are required to take security measures in that zone to protect themselves."

   The NLL, part of which was drawn close to the North Korean coastline, was set by the U.S.-led United Nations Command at the end of the 1950-53 Korean War.

   The North does not recognize the NLL and claims the line should be drawn further to the south. The area it referred to on Dec. 21 includes South Korean waters as defined by the NLL.

   The sea border dispute has led to deadly exchanges, in 1999 and 2002, near the west coast island of Yeonpyeong, and again near Daecheong island in November this year.

   South Korea suffered no casualties in 1999 when the North Korean Navy crossed the NLL. In 2002, six South Korean sailors were killed in an attack that officials said appeared to be an act of North Korean retaliation. Dozens of North Korean sailors are estimated to have been killed in both skirmishes.

   In the most recent skirmish in November, one North Korean was reportedly killed and several others were injured as the two sides traded fire. A North Korean ship ignored the South's warnings and crossed the NLL, prompting the South's navy to fire shots. The North called the South Korean response "a grave armed provocation."

   Pyongyang has crossed the NLL 22 times this year, according to the South Korean Joint Chiefs of Staff, but the North has frequently accused the South of violating the border and warned that it would take military action if such moves continued.

   South Korea expressed regret over the North Korean warning, pledging a "stern response" should the communist state provoke on the maritime border.

   "We express grave concern as the North's threat raises unnecessary tension between the Koreas," the South Korean Navy said in a statement, calling the North Korean argument "irrational."

   The South Korean military did not find the North's most recent statement surprising, however. One official, requesting anonymity, said this was only the latest attempt by the North to nullify the NLL.

   "As far as I understand, North Korea is experiencing some chaos internally after the recent currency redenomination," the official said. "Perhaps the North is deliberately trying to create tension on the Korean Peninsula to rally the public and restore order."

   Another official in the military said the NLL remains the definitive sea border between North and South, and added: "We will respond firmly to any attempt to nullify the border, including violation of the border and shooting exercises across the line. We're keeping a close eye on the North Korean military."

   Experts predict there will not be any imminent military clash because the North is trying to improve ties with the United States. U.S. special envoy on North Korea, Stephen Bosworth, held one-on-one talks with the North Korean key officials in early December to discuss the nuclear issue and a peace regime on the Korean Peninsula.

   After its provocative actions through missile launches and nuclear test in spring, the North's has mixed hostile rhetoric with conciliatory gestures toward the South and the U.S.

   Most recently, Pyongyang accepted Seoul's offer to provide the antiviral drug Tamiflu to help the North battle Influenza A (H1N1). Last week, Seoul provided US$15 million in flu medication.

   Meanwhile, officials from the two Koreas rounded up their joint tour of industrial facilities in China and Vietnam, where they discussed ways to improve the Kaesong industrial complex in the North.

   Also on Dec. 21, South Korea said it planned to resume cash support to enhance the health of North Korean infants and children, which it halted after the North's nuclear test earlier this year.

   Seoul's Unification Ministry said it will provide millions of dollars to U.N. agencies that operate health care programs for those who are nutritionally at risk in North Korea.