A North Korean patrol boat crossed into South Korean waters early on Monday and retreated after the South Korean navy fired warning shots, a South Korean military official said.
The incursion came amid heightened tensions on the Korean peninsula, a day after North Korea fired a long-range rocket carrying a satellite into space, a launch that South Korea and other countries consider to be a missile test in disguise.
The patrol boat crossed the Northern Limit Line, which North Korea does not recognize, in the Yellow Sea to the west of the peninsula, at 6:55 a.m. (21:55 GMT) near Socheongdo island, the official said.
Yonhap news agency said the patrol boat crossed despite warning communications from the South Korean navy, and retreated after five warning shots were fired by a naval gun, returning across the Northern Limit Line around 7:15 a.m.
“The South Korean military is on high alert, beefing up surveillance near the NLL and monitoring any abnormal activities by North Korean soldiers,”a military official said.
The boat incident comes hours after South Korean and US military officials announced they would begin formal discussions on placing the Terminal High Altitude Area Defence System (THAAD) on the North’s doorstep.
THAAD move a message to China
The rationale was a clear necessity to upgrade the defense posture of the South Korea-US military alliance “against North Korea’s advancing threats,” said Yoo Jeh-Seung, Seoul’s deputy defence minister for policy.
But beyond the strategic logic lies a diplomatic imperative, which suggests an eventual THAAD deployment may be less motivated by what North Korea is doing and more by what China is not doing.
China is North Korea’s main diplomatic protector, and both Washington and Seoul have been pressing Beijing to take a tougher line with Pyongyang over its nuclear weapons programme.
But China, wary of the consequences of a collapsing North Korea on its border, has resisted punitive sanctions before, and looks set to do so again as the UN Security Council mulls tougher sanctions against Pyongyang for its latest provocations.
According to Joel Wit, a senior fellow at the US-Korea Institute at Johns Hopkins University and the founder of its North Korea website, 38North, frustration with China’s stance has driven forward the possibility of deploying THAAD in South Korea.
“This is a way of sending a signal to China that what North Korea does has real consequences, including consequences for Beijing’s own security interests,” Wit said.
China’s response to that signal was swift and unequivocally negative.
While it only managed a rather muted expression of “regret” over the North’s rocket launch, it was quick to voice its “deep concern” at the prospect of South Korea introducing the US missile system.
Chinese Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Hua Chunying said such a move would escalate tensions on the Korean peninsula, undermine regional peace and stability, and set back efforts to address the North Korean nuclear situation.
“We demand the countries concerned be prudent,” Hua said.
China sees THAAD as a threat to the effectiveness of its own nuclear deterrent, arguing that it could be used to monitor Chinese missile launches as far inland as Xian in the northwest.
“It (plan for THAAD deployment) is a message to China that if you won’t deal with North Korea, we will go our way,” said Paul Carrol, program director for the nuclear disarmament and global security organisation Ploughshares Fund.
“And clearly there’s a danger there, because unless China and the US can get on the same page with a common approach to North Korea, there won’t be any progress and the situation will only get worse,” Carroll said.
“THAAD is partly about the US reassuring South Korea that it has its back, but at the same time there must be a broader picture discussion with China about how to handle North Korea,” he added.