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Web-only Exclusives
November 30, 2000

From Our Correspondent: Hirohito and the War
A conversation with biographer Herbert Bix

From Our Correspondent: A Rough Road Ahead
Bad news for the Philippines - and some others

From Our Correspondent: Making Enemies
Indonesia needs friends. So why is it picking fights?

Asiaweek Time Asia Now Asiaweek story

BATTLE OF THE 'WEST SEA'

Behind the latest clash between the Koreas

By Todd Crowell and Laxmi Nakarmi / Seoul


OF THE MANY PROVOCATIONS along the border between North and South Korea, the June 15 "West Sea Incident" was one of the most bizarre. On the Korean peninsula's east coast, hundreds of South Koreans were peacefully disembarking from their cruise ship to admire Diamond Mountain, just across the Demilitarized Zone in North Korea. At the same time, on the opposite coast, warships of the North and South Korean navies had a brief but violent sea battle in which one North Korean torpedo boat was sunk.

The confrontation had been building for a week when Northern crab-fishing boats began to move south of the informal maritime border called the Northern Limit Line. This in itself is almost an annual event. Normally, South Korean patrol boats shoo them away, and they return to their home ports. This time, they kept returning, shadowed by North Korean navy patrol boats.

As South Korean naval frigates converged on the site in the Yellow Sea (which Koreans call the "West Sea"), the incident escalated dangerously. The Southerners used "bump and push" (meaning ramming) tactics to forcibly nudge the Northern vessels back over the line. Then on the morning of June 15 a flotilla of four patrol boats and three torpedo boats again entered South Korean waters, says Seoul.

When the South Koreans tried to push them back, several boats opened fire, raking a South Korean frigate and four smaller warships. They returned fire, reportedly sinking one torpedo boat, apparently with all hands, normally about 30 men. The South Koreans said seven of their sailors were wounded in the battle that lasted about 10 minutes. No further clashes were reported, and the North Koreans retreated inside their line. South Korean armed forces were put on full alert. Washington, Beijing and Tokyo urged both sides to cool things.

The clash came just as Samsung Electronics chief Yoon Jong Yong and a delegation were about to leave Beijing for Pyongyang. They made a quick call to Seoul, and the government told them to continue with their business mission. Hong Won Tak, senior secretary for national security affairs, maintained the incident would not change the country's "sunshine" policy of seeking to engage North Korea or to cultivate business relations with it.

The North Korean provocation was deliberate, so what was the reasoning in Pyongyang? Almost as many possibilities have been raised as there are North Korea-watchers.

One argument holds that the North wants to somehow strengthen its hand prior to the planned vice-ministerial talks with the South on June 21 in Beijing. These much-anticipated negotiations are supposed to center on a possible breakthrough in uniting separated families. Another theory is that the clash was meant to be a kind of wake-up call from Pyongyang - trying to grab the attention of the U.S. now that its preoccupation with Yugoslavia might be ending. Or perhaps the incursion represents a desire by some hardline elements in North Korea to sabotage the South's sunshine policy because of their fear that over time the North will be seduced into surrendering its sovereignty or altering its political system.

This familiar pattern of provocation and conciliation has been evident any time there seems to be a thaw in relations. When Hyundai founder Chung Ju Yung was about to go north with his gift of cattle last year, Pyongyang sent submarines into Southern waters. When world attention focused on the planned economic zone near the Russian border, Pyongyang despatched armed commandos. Whatever the reason behind the June 15 sea battle, it showed once again how unpredictable the North Korean regime can be.


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