On Tuesday, November 10, the navies of North and South Korea exchanged fire in disputed waters off the western coast of the peninsula, damaging ships from both sides and reportedly killing a North Korean sailor. The incident began when a 215-ton North Korean vessel entered South Korean-controlled waters. Ignoring warnings from the South, the ship exchanged fire with two 130-ton South Korean vessels before re-crossing the border, reportedly in flames. The North, which claims the waters where the incident took place, has blamed the South for instigating the confrontation and issued repeated warnings through its state news service.
South Korea’s options in responding to this incident are limited. Seoul’s right to military retaliation is constrained by the ongoing border dispute. The end of the Korean War never produced a peace treaty, and the North and South have technically been observing a truce since 1953. The North has never accepted the current sea boundary, a UN-drawn border called the northern limit line, and its ships regularly stray into waters controlled by the South. In this context, the South cannot make an undisputed claim that its territory was invaded.
South Korea’s options for less direct action are similarly constrained. While the South could initiate economic sanctions and asset-freezing, it believes that such measures could add to the desperate poverty of the North’s citizens and slow the recent détente between the two countries. In a sign that the confrontation has not altered trade relationships, a North Korean freighter was allowed to enter South Korean waters yesterday on its way to Incheon. Meanwhile, any attempt to arbitrate the dispute before an international body would require the consent of one of the most isolationist regimes in the world.
The North has a history of initiating skirmishes in order to escalate pressure before major regional events; the last time the countries clashed was in 2002, while the South was hosting the World Cup. In this case, analysts believe, the North may be trying to send a message to President Obama, who is currently visiting the region and is scheduled to arrive in Seoul on Wednesday. North Korea wants a formal peace treaty to replace the 1953 truce, including reconsideration of disputed territory. It also wants bilateral negotiations with the U.S., which it believes could lead to its acceptance as a nuclear power. President Obama, who has made engagement with “rogue states” a cornerstone of his foreign policy, plans to send special envoy Stephen Bosworth to Pyongyang for talks over ending the North’s nuclear program.