By: Billy Valentine
Pace International Law Review, Junior Associate
On November 10, 2009, North and South Korean naval vessels exchanged fire along the disputed waters off the western coast of the Korean peninsula. Each of the Koreas accused each other of violating territorial boarders, with the clash resulting in the death of one North Korean sailor, three others injured, and a North Korean vessel engulfed in flames. South Korean officials say the North Korean vessel crossed the maritime boarder by more than a mile and, after five unanswered messages to turn around, fired a warning shot from two miles away. North Korea then returned 50 rounds of fire, causing the South Koreans to respond with 100 more, setting the North Korean vessel on fire. The skirmish constituted the first border fighting in 7 years between the two nations, who technically remain at war after the Korean War ended in a truce rather than a permanent peace treaty. North Korea, in its state media, demanded an apology for the incident in which it called a provocation by South Korea. South Korea remains on high alert in anticipation of a possible retaliation.
The clash underscores the instability in the region, and is thought by several commentators to be an intentional act by North Korea to point out that the war is not over and that a peace treaty must be negotiated prior to forfeiting its nuclear weapons program. “It was an intentional provocation by North Korea to draw attention ahead of Obama’s trip,” said Shin Yul, a political scientist at Seoul’s Myongji University. Others, however, believe it may have been a mutual mistake. “This is not the first naval incident, and it is a border area where both sides have different claims,” Charles Morrison, president of the Honolulu-based East-West Center, said in Singapore. “So it’s possible it’s an error.” White House spokesman Robert Gibbs said the administration was aware of the clash and urged North Korea not to escalate tensions. Washington has consistently said that Pyongyang must abandon its nuclear arsenal for any peace treaty to be concluded. North Korea has conducted two underground nuclear tests since 2006 and is believed to have enough weaponized plutonium for approximately six warheads. As President Barack Obama’s weeklong visit to Asia nears, the need for bilateral talks grows greater.