Tension Lingers on Western Sea Border
By Jung Sung-ki
``Combat positioning, combat positioning,'' a loud radio sounded around 11:30 a.m. in a 1,900-ton Ulsan-class South Korean Navy ship sailing 70 kilometers off Yeonpyeong Island near the Northern Limit Line (NLL) in the West Sea.
Hundreds of sailors in full battle-gear aboard the frigate named after the country's southern island of Jeju took their places immediately to follow orders from the ship's captain, Cmdr. Kim Ju-young.
With the ``fire'' direction given, the ship fired several rounds of its 76mm main gun against an imaginary 400-ton North Korean patrol ship. A minute later, a 40mm rapid-fire gun blasted off about 40 rounds to sink the already hard-hit ship.
With the last three confirming shots from the 76mm gun, the simulated fire-and-control operation against a possible North Korean incursion over the volatile sea borderline ended successfully.
The island, where more than 1,000 Marines are stationed, is the South Korean island closest to North Korea. It is located only 11 kilometers from the North Korean mainland.
``Our Navy's main mission here is defending the NLL, protecting our fishermen and preventing any infiltration by North Korean ships,'' Kim said. ``North Korean patrol ships frequently attempt to ignore the NLL under the cloak of overseeing illegal fishing activities by Chinese fishermen.''
`But we're maintaining a seamless naval defense posture to counter and end any provocative acts from the North.'' he said.
The NLL, the sea boundary imposed by the United Nations Command at the end of the 1950-53 Korean War, has been a hot spot for conflicts between the two Koreas, as Pyongyang has never accepted it as a border.
The two Koreas remain technically at war since the Korean War ended in a truce, not a peace treaty.
The navies of the two Koreas clashed near the line in 1999 and 2002, causing casualties and losses to both sides.
On June 29, 2002, two North Korean patrol boats crossed the NLL. As South Korean ships approached to deter the infiltration, the North Koreans abruptly opened fire in violation of rules of engagement, provoking the South Korean Navy to return fire.
One of the North Korean ships was heavily damaged and 30 North Korean sailors are believed to have been killed or wounded. Six South Koreans including Lt. Commander Yoon Young-ha were killed and 18 others injured.
The disabled South Korean 357 Chamsoori patrol boat sank while being towed back to shore.
This year, North Korean navy ships have violated the NLL at least six times, most of which appeared to be accidental, occurring while expelling Chinese fishing boats, said an official of the Joint Chiefs of Staff aboard the ship.
In the April-June crab-catching season, an average of 200 Chinese fishing boats illegally operate near the NLL, he said.
Sailors vowed a watertight defense of the sea borderline.
``All the sailors are well aware of the lesson from the 2002 skirmish. We'll not lose our comrades anymore and are ready to defeat any attacks from North Korea,'' said Lt. Cmdr. Lee Chang-seok, captain of the 351 Chamsoori patrol craft.
Seaman Joo Jae-shik said, ``It's quite a tough and risky job to serve in this northernmost sea border. But I have great pride in my job providing safety for our nation and people.''