Go to contents

Giving In on Northern Limit Line Will Threaten West Sea Security

Giving In on Northern Limit Line Will Threaten West Sea Security

Posted October. 23, 2007 07:29,   


In 1973, when the South Korean Navy relied on surface gunnery, North Korea began loading Styx missiles imported from the former Soviet Union onto their motor torpedo boats. The North then became aggressive at sea thanks to the strengthened firepower. It disregarded the Northern Limit Line (NLL), which had been respected by the two Koreas for 20 years before that, and blocked the seaways to five islands in the West Sea.

A waterway to the Baengnyeongdo Island was blocked and food and basic necessities had to be airlifted in. Militarily inferior to the North, South Korean warships were wary of approaching the island as it was within shooting range of North’s missiles. The situation was resolved through using military convoys and an ad-hoc truce committee. It took almost two years to gain an upper hand in the West Sea by deploying ship-to-ship missiles from France and America.

When the Korean War ended, the 38th Parallel demarcation line was drawn with the North occupying a line connecting the southern part of Gaesong and Yeonan, on the Ongjin Peninsula. These areas are a platform to launch attacks on the metropolitan areas of the South and constitute a point of strategic importance in military terms, enabling the North to deploy its navy closer to the border. However, without the control of the sea, its ambitions never became a reality and its military advantage could not be leveraged.

The five islands in the West Sea that are embracing Ongjin Peninsula and Haeju Harbor in the shape of a crescent moon are geographically advantageous, enabling air operations and real-time reconnaissance of North Korean forces. North Korea’s fleet base located in the southern area of the Ongjin Peninsula, its cannons deployed along the coast, and the South Korean Navy monitors its surface-to-ship missiles. This is where a possible surprise attack and low flying infiltration attempts are expected, and why the two Koreas have had repeated touch-and-go military stand-offs in this region.

The North resumed offensive operations in the late 1990’s when a pro-North Korean administration took office. It did so by infiltrating the NLL and claimed to have drawn a new marine demarcation line. In the process, a naval battle off the coast of Yeonpyeong was fought, and it argued that a new line connecting the Han River estuary and Deokjeokdo Island near Incheon should be drawn.

Some in the South then began to make absurd pro-North arguments. They said the North infiltrated the NLL to secure more fishing zones, which required the South to consider changing the line in order to enhance economic cooperation with the North. This is similar to an argument in 2001 that the South needed to open up the Jeju straits for the North because it was suffering from an oil shortage. The pro-North Korean organizations attempted to assuage the anger of the public in regard to the incident by transforming the nature of the incident from military to economic.

The North never mentioned fishing when it encroached upon the NLL, which is off-limits for North Korean fishermen. The North is neither stupid nor reckless enough to violate the NLL in order to secure more of the blue crab market, which commands 2,000 tons, or 10 billion won (as of 2006) a year.

The NLL is a military demarcation line that divides five islands, the Ongjin Peninsula, and an artillery range; therefore, the primary goal of the NLL is to protect the five islands in the West Sea. If the South Korean government gives in to the North’s demand of changing the NLL, the five islands will be reduced to indefensible, isolated islands.

From the North Korean military point of view, the NLL is a means and process to achieving something, not the purpose itself. Once it has its way in the NLL matter, it will demand the South to remove military posts in the area while working out ways to secure this strategic area.

When that happens, once again pro-North Korean activists will argue, “We should remove military posts first before we can talk about peace and reconciliation with the North. By law, the Korean peninsula belongs to South Korea, so it does not matter who controls the area.” This may sound reasonable, but only to a point.

When it comes to the NLL, the safety and future of Koreans living in the area needs to be taken into consideration first. Defending the west and the area’s role of war deterrent need to be reviewed, also. These, by nature, are defense priorities and the domain of military specialists.