Truth About West Sea Naval Clash; "NLL" Questioned

By Staff Reporter

The morning of June 29 witnessed a 20-minute-long exchange of gunfire in the West Sea between North and South Korean naval vessels, leaving one South Korean warship sunken and one North Korean warship damaged and sailors of both sides dead and some others wounded. The South Korean military authorities readily announced that day that the North's patrol boats encroached upon what they call the "Northern Limit Line (NLL)" and made an "intentional and preemptive attack" on the South's Navy speed boats, calling for an "apology" from the North. But the facts show the contrary.


S. Korean fishermen reveal the truth


Seoul's claim as such, however, was rebuffed by none other than fishermen of South Korea who witnessed the incident from the outset. A shocking revelation came on a Website ( by a crab fisherman, called "Yonpyong Bachelor," based on Yonpyong islet near which the naval skirmish took place. He revealed that more than 50 South Korean fishing boats crossed, for three days in a row, not only the "Red Line" but also the "NLL" to catch crabs, actually to "haul up nets" they had set in the North's territorial waters, which provoked the North's navy. "The truth will hurt the fishermen here and the South Korean navy." "The navy has to explain why it has covered up the truth," he wrote, and elaborated the three-day events leading the ultimate clash as follows (English translation is by a U.S.-based Website on Korean affairs "Kimsoft"):


Map of "NLL" and MDL

*A new maritime MDL is an extension of the MDL designated by the 1953 Korean Armistice Agreement, which was drawn on the principle of equidistance from the projected parts of lands of both sides--the southernmost islets under the North's control and the northernmost islets under the South's control.

*First and second zones (waterways) were newly fixed for U.S. and South Korean vessels to navigate along, in consideration of the fact that the five islands (Paekryong, Taechong, Sochong, Yonpyong and U islets) are under the U.S. Forces control.


June 26: the southern warships were stationed along "NLL" as usual but some 60 crab ships made a coordinated run across "NLL." There was no way they could be stopped. The fishermen were ordered to return to Yonpyong islet by 10:00 and report to the port authority or else. The fishermen obeyed the order and returned to the base by 10:00. The fishermen held a meeting that evening.

June 27: the navy did not allow the fishermen to leave the port as punishment for their action on the 26th.

June 28: the fishermen were allowed to leave the port after they swore that they would stay south of the forbidden zone. But at 08:00, the fishermen entered the forbidden zone simultaneously on a prearranged signal. The fishermen ignored the navy order to leave the area immediately and began to raid the rich crab habitats.

At 08:45, the navy warned the fishermen that a North Korean warship was on the way. The fishermen ignored this warning and kept on gathering crabs.

At 09:00, three more South Korean warships arrived at the scene. Two of the ships faced off the North Korean warship and four warship tried to herd the fishing boats.

At 09:45, the navy ordered the fishermen to clear out the area immediately.

At 10:13, all fishing boats returned to south of "NLL."

At 10:30, the North Korean warship left and the naval confrontation ended.

On the evening, the fishermen met with the navy officers and got their permission for limited fishing in the forbidden zone.

June 29:  at 06:00, the fishermen left the island. The navy radioed the fishermen: "You guys went too far yesterday and pissed off the northerners. We will let you go north today but wait until 08:00."

At 07:30, sixty or so of the crab boats could not wait until 08:00 and crossed the line en masse. The navy was caught with its pants down. The area is about 11 km from the nearest coast of North Korea. Seamen measure distances in nautical miles, one nautical mile being 1.84 km.  Most of the boats stopped at 3-4 nautical miles and began fishing, but about 10 boats went about seven nautical miles - less than 4 nautical miles from the North Korean mainland.

At 08:00, two navy vessels rushed over to herd back the fishing boats and four other vessels were trying to help get the wayward fishermen back south of "NLL." However, the fishermen kept on fishing and the navy ships apparently gave up.

At 08:45, two northern warships arrived at the scene post-haste and began to approach the fishing boats.

At 09:00, South Korean navy ordered the fishermen to leave the area at once.

At 09:05, two of the South Korean warships steamed north to face off the northern ships.

At 09:13, north and south warships met. The southern ships rammed the northern warships at high speed in an effort to turn them back.

At 09:45, the warships exchanged fire exactly as reported by the navy.

This incident could have been avoided if the fishermen had obeyed the navy order to clear the area. I am a fisherman and we, the fishermen of Yonpyong islet, caused this incident. We were directly responsible for the death of young men and loss of government properties. Even when the fighting was raging, about ten boats kept on fishing in the forbidden zone. These fishermen shouted obscene epithets at the naval officers who tried to get them out of the zone.

I was there and witnessed the whole event and my telling the truth may bring retribution to me and to my fellow fishermen but I want the world to know the truth. I want those who are fanning the flame of war to know what has really happened. I want our military to come clean and tell the whole truth.

*Posted by 'Yonpyong Bachelor', a crab fisherman


"Yonpyong Bachelor" posted this message on an Internet chat through a PC room using a temporary ID and password, apparently to avoid any retribution by the government "authorities" and right-wing groups. However, the crab fisherman's confession was not isolated. On July 1, MBC quoted crab fishermen's story as saying that more than 10 fishing boats had been fishing in waters north of the "NLL" when the gunfire exchange occurred.

"Ohmynews," Internet news site in South Korea, also interviewed the two captains of fishing boats of the island, who told other reporters what they had witnessed but their accounts did not reach the public. The captains, who answered on condition of anonymity, told "Ohmynews" as follows: "If the fishermen had obeyed the navy orders, the northern military would not have been so provoked. Put yourselves in their shoes: more than fifty fishing boats crossing the Red Line all at once and rushing toward North Korea--three days in a row. You would be alarmed, too." "'NLL' is typically 3-4 miles from the Red Line and so, these captains are in effect bragging about crossing 'NLL.'"

One influential islander spoke out: Mr. Shin Nam Suk (52), president of the Korean Veterans Association of Yonpyong Islet. In fact, he was the first informant to the media. In his interview with "Ohmynews," Shin revealed the fact that he had contacted KBS first but its people were skeptical of his story, so he called MBC. After the MBC aired his story, he received numerous threats along the line, he said. "Fishing in forbidden zones is not new. It had been going on for months." "There are well-known facts. The islanders are reluctant to talk about these for fear of retribution. There is a code of silence and those who break it are ostracized. I am not afraid. The truth must be told no matter what," he added.


Who drew "NLL," and for what?


In his recent interview with a magazine, Prof. Lee Yong Hee of South Korea, who published two years ago a book on the "Northern Limit Line," commented on the incident:

"It is a total illusion to think that the 'Northern Limit Line' is part of South Korea's territorial waters. It is a unilateral measure, apart from any specific provisions of the Korean Armistice Agreement, taken by the UNC Commander (U.S. general) who seized the prerogative of the supreme command of the South Korean military, as an inside regulation to fulfill military operations." The drawn line in the West Sea was aimed to block the North militarily, Prof. Lee observed in his account.  

He also dismissed the southerners' argument that the North has given a tacit recognition to the existence of "NLL" for forty years, saying: "That is not true. Though the North's 'violations' of 'NLL' may be regarded as 'provocative acts' by the South, such moves, seen from the North, have been repeated demonstrations based on its own stand, which defies such 'a maritime demarcation line.'"

In fact, Seoul had not long claimed "NLL" to be an established "maritime demarcation line." At a National Assembly session meeting in July 1996, for example, the then defense minister of South Korea, Lee Yang Ho, answered the question raised by a National Assemblyman regarding "NLL" by saying, "Crossing 'NLL' by North Korean naval vessels has nothing to do with a violation of the Korean Armistice Agreement." In the wake of a June 15, 1999 skirmish in the West Sea, however, Seoul suddenly started to claim that "NLL" is a "maritime demarcation."

"NLL" is said to have been secretly drawn by the U.S. in 1958. Pyongyang's stand on "NLL" has remained unchanged ever since it came to be exposed later. In a statement on July 8, a spokesman for the Panmunjom Mission of the Korean People's Army claimed as follows:

"First, the 'Northern Limit Line' is a brigandish line drawn by the U.S. and the South Korean military in the inviolable territorial waters of the DPRK side without any discussion with it. And the U.S. has not informed it of this till now.

"Second, the 'NLL' is an illegal line that ignores even the elementary provisions of the Korean Military Armistice Agreement and international law. Subparagraph B of paragraph 13 of the truce accord stipulates that all the islands lying to the north and west of the Provincial boundary line between (North's) Hwanghae Province and (South's) Kyonggi Province shall be under the military control of the Korean People's Army side, and the UN forces side shall control only five islands in territorial waters under the military control of the KPA side. Even in view of the international law, it is a common practice recognized by all countries to fix boundary lines on the principle of equidistance from the projecting parts of lands of both sides, their outer boundaries and their islands.

"Third, the U.S. and the South Korean side have been opposed to the proposal of the KPA side for scores of years to discuss and clearly fix the military demarcation line in the West Sea because they have been well aware that the 'NLL' is contrary to law and does not stand to reason. At meetings of the Military Armistice Commission in 1973, 1989 and 1999, the KPA side noted that future clashes were unavoidable unless a clear military demarcation line was drawn in the West Sea, repeatedly urging the U.S. side to take an immediate measure. But the U.S. and South Korean sides paid no heed to it, only keen on their smear campaigns against the DPRK."

After a June 15, 1999 West Sea naval clash took place which caused human and material losses on both sides of Korea, the DPRK and the U.S. military authorities had six rounds of general officer-level meetings and two rounds of colonel-level meetings to prevent recurrence of conflicts in the waters at issue and ease the tense situation, between late June and early September in 1999. At the talks Pyongyang exposed the illegality of "NLL" and claimed that a maritime demarcation line should be drawn in accordance with the Korean Armistice Agreement and international law. Washington, however, rejected the offer by saying that such issue should be discussed by the North-South Joint Military Commission, which, Washington knew, had not been functioning. Washington and Seoul killed the chance of its fundamental solution and delayed it indefinitely. Then came Pyongyang's announcement of a special communique on September 2, 1999, which declared the "Northern Limit Line" invalid and fixed the Military Demarcation Line in the West Sea of Korea. The new Military Demarcation Line in the sea set by the North shows that the latest naval clash took place within North Korean waters. Pyongyang expressed its readiness to negotiate a solution to the issue. However, Washington and Seoul did not respond to the offer. More than six months later, on March 23, 2000, the Korean People's Army declared an "Order of navigation to and from five islands" situated in the territorial waters north of the extension of the MDL in the West Sea. (See a map on "NLL" and MDL)

Taken together, an ultimate solution to the issue of preventing further military conflicts in the West Sea will be made only when a peace accord is concluded to replace the present Korean Armistice Agreement, a ceasefire under which the two sides are technically at war.



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