Game of Battleships: A Commentary on the History and Future of the Northern Limit Line Disputes
by Mycal Ford
On September 24, 2012, North Korean fishing boats were reported as crossing the Northern Limit Line located in the Yellow (west) Sea, a historical maritime border decided shortly after the 1953 armistice–by United Nations Command leader, General Mark Clark – and never accepted by North Korea. Reminding North Korea of the Northern Limit Line, South Korean naval boats, in an attempt to repel the fishing vessels, fired warning shots at the intruders. Although the North Korean civilian boats receded in response to South Korean shelling, neutralizing the conflict, the Northern Limit Line quarrels are nevertheless indicative of ongoing maritime border disputes.
If the disputed territory, a demarcation line which currently benefits S. Korea(strong statement and some would disagree), is left unsettled, and North Korea continues to be defeated, the geopolitical game may escalate to a flashpoint beyond the Yeonpyeong Island shelling which claimed 4 innocent lives.
History of the Northern Limit Line
The NLL is commonly thought to have emerged sometime during the Korean War; the details however, are ambiguous. During talks of the 1953 Korean War Armistice Agreement, mention of a maritime boundary surfaced–though, a consensus was not reached. North Korea insisted on 12 nautical miles (nm) of territory waters; however, the United Nations Command (UNC) was only willing to permit 3nm of territorial reach (the international standard during the time-period, which has now changed to 12nm). Scholars mention that the roots of the NLL lie in a unilateral decision made by UNC Commander-in-Chief Mark Clark, who promulgated the maritime boundary as a means to prevent S. Korean and UNC forces from escalating a potential conflict, as well as illegal patrolling by N. Korean vessels in S. Korean waters. In a 1974 declassified Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) report, it is indicated that the N. Limit Line was not established prior to 1960. However, others assert otherwise.
For two decades, the DPRK withdrew as its weakened naval forces could not sustain
any drawn-out conflicts. The unilaterally drawn NLL, whose legal basis in
international law, binding, and legitimacy are arbitrary, went undisputed until
a 1999 flashpoint, despite provocative patrolling patterns in the 70s in the
aforementioned CIA report. On June 15, 1999, the DPRK and ROK exchanged bullets, which
resulted in two DPRK vessels sinking and an uncertain number of North Korean injuries and or death. The North Korean government followed the conflict with a pronouncement to nullify the NLL. Pyongyang’s proposal was ignored and went unacknowledged by Washington and Seoul.
However, the 1999 incident was not to be the last of the NLL disputes. Several incidents
followed in 2002, 2004, 2009, and 2010 which is perhaps the most bloody, the sinking of the S. Korean Cheonan Pohang class corvette. With the loss of 46 lives, the March 26 North Korean attack on the South became the largest loss of life in any military incident since the
1953 armistice, prompting serious debate on North Korea’s culpability on the
international stage. Yet, as outh. Korea was scrambling, North Korean forces fired on Yeonpyeong Island in November, resulting in the death of two South Korean civilians and two military personnel.
Positioning South Korea’s Battleships:
The Republic of Korea endorses the “de-facto maritime border” for security reasons. If the e maritime border were to to shift further south, it is likely the South Korean government would be vulnerable to an unpredictable North Korean barrage. In light of the transition into the Kim Jong-Un era of N Korea, scholars are unsure of the likely scale, scope or frequence of Northern provocation. Uncertainty coupled with recent aggressive disputes are not the most settling of feelings. With Cheonan and Yeonpyeong fresh in the minds and hearts of South. Korean citizens, internal pressure surfacing from its people is likely in the event of South concessions on the NLL. Therefore, South Korea views the NLL as advantageous for its geopolitical security. However, as the re-drawing of lines may make vulnerable S. Korea to N. Korea provocation, the opposite is also true. Currently, the NLL does not make N. Korea impervious to S. Korea aggression.
Uncertainty coupled with recent aggressive disputes are not the most settling of feelings. With Cheonan and Yeonpyeong fresh in the minds and hearts of S. Korean citizens, internal pressure surfacing from its people is likely in the event of South concessions on the NLL.Therefore, South Korea views the NLL as advantageous for its geopolitical security. However, as the re-drawing of lines may make South Korea vulnerable to North Korea provocation, the opposite is also true. Currently, the NLL does not make North Korea impervious to South Korean aggression, a point made frequently in the state media.
The “de-facto maritime border” also conveniently provides S. Korea with access to
some prizes lying beneath the waters in-motion. The NLL area is the site of rich crab fishing grounds, with Chinese, North Korean and South Korean boats all wanting their share of
the catch, especially a sanctioned N. Korean, who grasps for hard-currency. Generally put, the NLL area is, thus far, drawn such that it benefits S. Korea geopolitically and in terms of the access to resources.
While China certainly does not want to be placed in a similar position as last May, having to pry Liaoning province fisherman from the hands of the North Korean navy for having strayed too deep into the “gray area” of the Yellow Sea in search of blue crab, the PRC is another factor that must be weighed into the calculations of both Koreas as they survey the waters.
Positioning North Korea’s Battleships In classic syntax, North Korea calls the NLL a “bogus line unilaterally and illegally drawn by [UNC] in the 1950s and our side, therefore, has never recognized it.” Furthermore, the United Nations Convention of the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) articulates in Section II, Article 15 that an equidistant maritime border would be established if the two states were “opposite or adjacent.” UNCLOS also stipulates in Section II, Article 7, Paragraph 6, “the system of straight baselines may not be applied by a State in such a manner as to cut off the territorial sea of another State from the high seas or an exclusive economic zone.” Even despite the possible legal grounds that the DPRK may have to appeal the NLL site, the DPRK is the defeated in this game of geopolitics. Firstly, the DPRK were excluded from the initial conversation of the origins of the NLL site. Secondly, N. Korea has restricted access to resources beyond the 3nm mark set, which is currently 12nm as noted above. If the DPRK were to make such appeals, the probability of the international community conceding to a regime that can barely feed its citizens, continues to consistently disrupt the status quo, and disregards international norms regarding the procurement of nuclear uranium is not favorable. Bad behavior cannot be rewarded with sympathy.
Shadows on the Horizon of the Waters The September 24 episode in the Yellow (West) Sea, where DPRK vessels are said to be luring ROK forces perhaps to incite a conflict by nonchalantly crossing the NLL site, displays DPRK reservations towards building any consensus on regional maritime rights, while for its part, South Korea is unwilling to concede to a regime that persists in maritime provocations. The September skirmish shows, at best, that North Korea is unyielding in its protests against the NLL site.
Recently, the Republic of Korea has expanded its ballistic missiles systems range from 300 km to 800 km. Its implications could curb DPRK aggression, or contrarily, incite an arms race. Conclusiveness in the matter is yet to be seen as the Republic of Korea, United States, and the People’s Republic of China, major actors in the region, are transitioning leadership. Follow-up protocol is entirely contingent on the new actors who may/may not sit at the DPRK negotiating table.
In other words, if a militarily equipped DPRK is as prepared as it announces, then it is primed for saber-rattling in the NLL, or on land with missile testing, in a period of preoccupation by regional actors. The chances of the DPRK pursuing a path towards economic reform with regional actors is plausible; however, based on the aggressive trend of the DPRK and recent Iran-DPRK tech-agreement which allows a casual exchange of information, such an option is grim. A foray of DPRK vessels across the NLL is the consequences of a quiet summer, not a small hug from Kim Jong-Un to Mickey Mouse.
Is it, then, worthwhile to prepare for an aggressive/passive DPRK during a rambunctious autumn/winter?
ROK politicians assert that the NLL site is crucial to regional security; yet, DPRK officials repudiate such an arbitrarily drawn hop-scotch line. Despite the legal grounds N. Korea may have to make a compelling case for its loss, sympathy will not be rewarded to those who cannot behave. Therefore, a pouting DPRK coddled by an Iranian ally up-against a flexing S. Korean and his American coach could result in a Mixed Martial Arts fight perhaps more deadly than the Yeonpyeong shelling.
Tags: analysis of blue crab waters in Asia, arguing over territorial waters, arms race in East Asia, Asia, Cheonan Incident, China, China's new aircraft carrier and Korea, disputed leftovers from the Korean War, inter-Korean hostilities, KCNA on navy, Kim Jong Un in a little boat, Kim Jong Un in the West Sea, Korea and China at sea, Korean War, Korean War Armistice, Mahan in the Yellow Sea, missile range from South Korea, North Korea's coastal defenses, Northern Limit Line, Northern Limit Line dispute, Roger Cavazos, West Sea disputes, Yellow Sea disputes, Yeonpyeong Island incident