Game of Battleships: A Commentary on the History and Future of the Northern Limit Line Disputes

By | October 13, 2012 | 5 Comments

Inter-Korean Naval Skirmish in September 2012 — Image courtesy ROK Armed Forces, via Shanghaiist

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.

South Korean high-speed boat (right) rams a North Korean vessel near the Northern Limit Line in 2009 — Image via Chosun Ilbo

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 South 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.

China’s New Aircraft Carrier, the “Liaoning,” steams from Dalian/Port Arthur into the Yellow Sea, October 12, 2012 — Image via Xinhua

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.

Image via Marmot’s Hole

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.

5 Comments

  1. Reblogged this on Sino-NK Emerging Writers' Forum.

  2. Just a correction, the Cheonan was a corvette class ship, not a sub.

  3. Steve – thank you for being a devoted SinoNK.com reader. We have made the change you pointed out. And of course, we’d like you to enjoy your lifetime subscription to our e-blog. Seriously, thank you. Are there any other subjects that interest you? We’re always looking for good ideas for future issues. Thank you and looking forward to staying in touch with involved readership.

  4. It would be a shorter list to tell your North Korean topics that do not interest me. On a serious note I am very interested in the current situation of the North Korean armed forces. While this information is probably some of the hardest to come by, the situation for all three branches of the military is fascinating. Especially considering the rumors that the government may be shifting away from the military-first policy. I would love to do the research myself but I’ve been unable to find anything more than rumors. Thank you for your thoughtful response to my comment.

  5. To add to the ambiguity surrounding the establishment of the line, Lee Mun Hang argues in his book, “JSA-Panmunjom: 1953-1994,” that the NLL may have been created in the late 1950s following an increase in South Korean fishing boats venturing too far north and being captured by North Korea.

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