North puts series of new buoys along NLL

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North puts series of new buoys along NLL

North Korea has deployed 19 new buoys to mark the heavily guarded Northern Limit Line (NLL) in the Yellow Sea, said a Defense Ministry official, a move suggesting the North’s tacit acknowledgement of the de facto western maritime border it has denied for decades.

“The military has been closely monitoring the North Korean military’s movements around buoys set up near the NLL areas,” said Kim Min-seok, the ministry spokesman, during a press briefing Thursday. “While we have been considering the intentions of the North in installing these buoys, we understand they were set up out of some need recognized by [the North Korean army].”

Kim did not elaborate whether the need was related to military strategy or to keep Chinese vessels from fishing illegally in North Korean waters.

The NLL was drawn unilaterally by the United States-led UN coalition forces at the end of the 1950-53 Korean War. North Korea does not recognize it and insists the western border is much farther south.

An intelligence official said North Korean patrol ships use the buoys to control Chinese fishing vessels, to “push them south of the buoy marks.” He noted that an increasing number of Chinese ships have illegally entered the area recently as this is the season for harvesting crabs.

The North installed six buoys in the past but north of the NLL, which ruled out the possibility that they were intended to mark a border. They were considered a tool for naval ships to anchor and prevent themselves from drifting into southern waters.

The buoys deployed this time along the NLL were too small to be used as anchoring tools and North Korean navy vessels do not appear to be using them for anchoring, according to a military source.

Contention over the validity of the NLL as a border led the two Koreas into two naval clashes in 1999 and 2002, both of which stoked tensions on the peninsula and remain thorny issues between the two rivals. In the latter case, South Korea lost six naval officers during a 31-minute battle that began after North Korean naval ships breached the NLL.

The North’s latest move has sparked speculation that the regime may be tacitly accepting the NLL despite its refusal to acknowledge it officially.

Noting that there have been many occasions on which the North has accepted the NLL, Defense Ministry spokesman Kim said the state switches its position on the NLL depending on its need in a given situation.

The Defense Ministry’s announcement came a day after a JoongAng Ilbo report on the buoy deployment, in which a government official was quoted as saying the North Korean army appeared to have placed the buoys after North Korean leader Kim Jong-un ordered an increase in fish hauls.

“Though the North’s motive may lie in something else [other than military-related], it is the first time that North Korea actually recognized the NLL,” said the official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity.

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