North, South Korea trade artillery rounds into Yellow Sea


South Korean Marine Corps amphibious assault vehicles throw smoke bombs as they move to shore during a U.S.-South Korea joint landing operation drill Monday in Pohang. (Kim Hong-Ji/Reuters)
March 31

North and South Korea fired hundreds of artillery shells into each other’s waters Monday in a flare-up of animosity that forced residents of five front-line South Korean islands to evacuate to shelters for several hours, South Korean officials said.

The exchange of fire into the Yellow Sea followed Pyongyang’s sudden announcement that it would conduct live-fire drills in seven areas north of the Koreas’ disputed maritime boundary. North Korea routinely test-fires artillery and missiles into the ocean but rarely discloses those plans in advance. The announcement was seen as an expression of Pyongyang’s frustration at making little progress in its recent push to win outside aid.

North Korea fired 500 artillery shells over more than three hours, about 100 of which fell south of the sea boundary, South Korean Defense Ministry spokesman Kim Min-seok said. South Korea responded by firing 300 shells into North Korean waters, he said.

No shells from either side were fired at any land or military installations, but Kim called the North’s artillery fire a provocation aimed at testing Seoul’s security posture. There was no immediate comment from North Korea.

White House spokesman Jonathan Lalley called North Korea’s actions “dangerous and provocative” and said they would further aggravate tensions in the region.

Monday’s exchange was a relatively mild event in the history of animosity and violence between the Koreas. But there is worry in Seoul that an increasingly dissatisfied North Korea could repeat last spring’s near-daily barrage of war rhetoric, when Pyongyang threatened nuclear strikes on Washington and Seoul in response to condemnation of its third nuclear test.

Residents on front-line South Korean islands spent several hours in shelters during the firing, and officials temporarily halted ferry service linking the islands to the mainland. Kang Myeong-sung, speaking from a shelter on Yeonpyeong Island, which is in sight of North Korean territory, said he didn’t hear any fighter jets but heard the boom of artillery fire.

The poorly marked western sea boundary has been the scene of several bloody naval skirmishes between the Koreas in recent years. In March 2010, a South Korean warship sank in the area after a torpedo attack blamed on Pyongyang that left 46 sailors dead. North Korea denies responsibility for the sinking. In November 2010, a North Korean artillery bombardment killed four South Koreans on Yeonpyeong.

The North has gradually dialed down its threats since last year’s tirade and has sought improved ties with South Korea in what foreign analysts say is an attempt to lure investment and aid. There has been no major breakthrough, however, with Washington and Seoul calling on the North to take disarmament steps to prove its sincerity about improving ties.

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