North Korea redraws border, threatens to enforce new line

Tensions in the region increase ahead of talks with U.S. in Berlin

September 03, 1999|By LOS ANGELES TIMES

SEOUL, South Korea -- North Korea's military increased tensions in the region yesterday by declaring that it has unilaterally redrawn the decades-old de facto maritime border with South Korea and threatening to enforce the new line "by various means."

The new demarcation would extend the demilitarized zone between the two Koreas southwest into the Yellow Sea, placing five islands controlled by South Korea within the North's territory, the South Korean Defense Ministry said.

The move came as the threat of a North Korean ballistic missile test appeared to be receding after the Communist government agreed to meet Tuesday with U.S. officials in Berlin. Negotiators will discuss easing U.S. economic sanctions in exchange for a moratorium on North Korea's missile program.

South Korean officials immediately termed the announced border shift "outrageous." They vowed to defend the existing "northern limit line," which was imposed by the United Nations Command in 1953 at the end of the Korean War, until the two Koreas can negotiate a new boundary in talks under U.N. auspices.

The five islands controlled by South Korea had a population of 11,500 in 1993, according to the Encyclopedia of Korea. South Korea has military bases on the two largest islands, Paek Ryong and Young Pyong, and is believed to have missiles deployed on at least one island.

The two sides have had six rounds of unsuccessful talks over the disputed waters since a naval battle erupted in the Yellow Sea in June, resulting in heavy North Korean losses.

"An eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth," said an unnamed South Korean Defense Ministry official quoted in the South's hawkish Chosun Ilbo newspaper. "We will retaliate against any North Korean military movement."

However, a U.S. official here said: "It depends on what they actually do, not what they say. There's a big difference between asserting things -- especially on this peninsula -- and trying to enforce things."

Donald Gregg, the former U.S. ambassador to South Korea, also cautioned against overreaction.

"This is just one of many issues that the North and South need to discuss if they're really going to move toward reconciliation," he said in a telephone interview.

North Korea's seemingly contradictory behavior -- agreeing to negotiations and then immediately provoking fresh tensions -- is "typical behavior by a totalitarian state," tactics that were employed for years by the Soviet Union, China and other countries, Gregg said.

"They constantly negotiate at the brink."

South Korean commentators suggested two possible motives for the North Koreans' action: to increase their leverage at the negotiating table in Berlin or to retaliate for their humiliating naval defeat in the Yellow Sea.

"North Korea needs an excuse to be angry," said Chi Man Won, an independent South Korean military analyst. "So they will be very stern and strong about this issue and tension will develop, and then they will use that tension as an excuse to test-fire the missile."

U.S. intelligence reports indicate that North Korea's new Taepodong 2 missile has a range of 4,000 miles, putting Alaska within its reach.

North Korea has never formally accepted the United Nations' northern limitation line, but it did not challenge it for decades. Then in June, during the prime season for a particularly lucrative species of crab, North Korean boats made repeated forays over the line and South Korean patrol boats repulsed them.

The skirmishes escalated into a naval battle June 15, and North Korea's antiquated flotilla was badly overmatched. A North Korean torpedo boat was sunk and 30 crew members reportedly killed. At least five other North Korean vessels were badly damaged, while only a few South Korean sailors suffered minor injuries.

Pub Date: 9/03/99

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