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North’s warning casts doubt on Moon’s claim

Oct 17,2018
North Korea warned the South Korean Navy twice last Sunday to stay out of its waters in the Yellow Sea after two vessels crossed into the northern side of Pyongyang’s purported maritime border, Seoul’s Joint Chiefs of Staff said Tuesday.

The revelation instantly sparked a backlash from opposition lawmakers because the Joint Chiefs of Staff said the South Korean naval vessels were still sailing on the southern side of the Northern Limit Line (NLL), meaning that by South Korean maritime law, the vessels didn’t cross into the North.

South Korean President Moon Jae-in said last Friday that the North “acknowledged” the NLL in the latest inter-Korean summit last month, and therefore, both Koreas agreed to create a so-called peace zone around the area to prevent any possible military clashes and establish a joint fishing zone.

Critics of Moon accused him of lying, saying the North wouldn’t have issued a warning to the South Korean Navy Sunday had it actually acknowledged the NLL as Moon claimed.

The NLL has long been a thorny issue between the two Koreas, as Pyongyang argues it was unilaterally drawn by the U.S.-led United Nations Command after the end of the 1950-53 Korean War. The North has claimed that the line should be redrawn further south and presented its version of an inter-Korean maritime border in December 2007 during a South-North military meeting between generals.

Asked why the North issued warnings Sunday - which seemed to contradict Moon’s statement that it respected the NLL - the Joint Chiefs of Staff only said it was “analyzing” the issue. According to the South Korean military, the naval vessels at the time were protecting South Korean fishing boats working nearby. A parliamentary audit session last Friday revealed that the North issued similar warnings to the South Korean Navy around 20 times from July 5 to Sept. 28.

A local government source said Pyongyang might have tried to feel out South Korea’s public sentiment on the NLL issue by giving public warnings after Moon’s remark.

National Defense Ministry spokeswoman Choi Hyun-soo said the South Korean Navy wasn’t “responding to every little rhetorical threat” from North Korea. Roh Jae-cheon, spokesman for the Joint Chiefs of Staff, stressed that the South Korean Navy was engaging in “normal” operations around the NLL.

Moon Seong-mook of the Korea Institute for National Security Strategy said it was significant that both Koreas managed to mention the NLL in a joint military agreement last month during the third inter-Korean summit, but he wasn’t sure whether that meant Pyongyang was acknowledging it as an actual maritime border. The military pact says both countries agreed to create a peace zone around the NLL in the Yellow Sea.

“If [South Korea] doesn’t hear a definitive stance from North Korea,” said the analyst, “the North might try to present a different baseline other than the NLL when they negotiate the establishment of a peace zone.”

BY LEE CHUL-JAE, LEE SUNG-EUN [lee.sungeun@joongang.co.kr]