North Korea yesterday continued to mix hostile rhetoric with its softer attitude toward South Korea, a move officials here say indicates that Pyongyang ultimately wants to maintain solid ties with Seoul.
The North threatened to take “merciless military measures” to protect its own Yellow Sea border with South Korea, once again refusing to recognize the disputed Northern Limit Line. The North also reiterated its demand for the South’s apology for Tuesday’s skirmish, which occurred after a North Korean boat crossed the NLL on the Yellow Sea.
But later yesterday, a North Korean merchant ship was scheduled to dock at Incheon Port on the west coast in the South to deliver goods for inter-Korean trade. It was to become the first North Korean vessel to travel to the South since the inter-Korean naval clash in the Yellow Sea on Tuesday.
In a message attributed to a North Korean general who represents Pyongyang’s delegation at inter-Korean general-level military talks, the North reminded the South that there is only one sea demarcation line in the West Sea set by Pyongyang and that, “from this moment on, we will take merciless military measures to protect it.”
The North has refused to recognize the NLL as a valid sea border because it was unilaterally established by the U.S.-led United Nations forces after the Korean War ended in 1953. The North made a similar declaration earlier this year. The North said Tuesday’s skirmish was “aimed at destroying national reconciliation and unity and hampering peace and unification.”
The Ministry of National Defense in Seoul said the North’s message was in response to the South’s earlier communique protesting the North Korean boat’s violation of the NLL and its firing at a South Korean Navy boat after the South had only launched indirect warning shots.
“We won’t respond to the North again, but our position is clear,” said ministry spokesman Won Tae-jae. “We will protect the NLL and we will immediately stifle any North Korean provocation that challenges it.”
A high-ranking ministry official, speaking to reporters on condition of anonymity, said the latest North Korean message is “a rhetorical threat” that likely won’t lead to concrete military action, but that the South will continue to maintain tight protection of the maritime border.
“The North hasn’t recognized the NLL for some time now, but we haven’t detected any particular movements that would indicate an imminent provocation,” the official said.
Kookmin University professor Jung Chang-hyun said the North has little to gain by staging another military action now since it would be overwhelmed by the South’s forces. “They’re just trying to raise tension and that in itself may have been the goal,” he said.
Koh Yu-hwan, professor of North Korean studies at the Dongguk University, said the North Korean military is taking a belligerent stance because it may not want to admit defeat, and at the same time it wants to remind the South that there’s always a possibility for another provocation.
But even as the North issued threats on the South, a North Korean vessel named Geumbit - literally meaning golden glitter - was on its way to the Incheon Port carrying 2,000 tons of casting silica. North Korean merchant vessels regularly deliver goods for trade with South Korea.
Sources said the North’s Ministry of Marine Transportation contacted the South’s Unification Ministry about the Geumbit on the day the naval exchange took place, and again the following day. Sources also said the Geumbit traveled past Daecheong Island, which is located close to where the clash occurred, and across the NLL.
The South-North Korea Exchanges and Cooperation Support Association, which delivers goods to North Korea for the South Korean government, sent new communication equipment to Kaesong north of the border on Thursday. On Oct. 28, the Unification Ministry said it would provide optical cables and conduit lines to help upgrade the North’s military communications.
By Yoo Jee-ho, Lee Young-jong [firstname.lastname@example.org]