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South Korea shooting mishap highlights heightened tensions with North

South Korean marines mistakenly fired on a passenger jet owned by Asiana Airlines on Friday. They thought it was a North Korean fighter jet.

By Donald KirkCorrespondent / June 19, 2011

South Korean marines cover a gun with a camouflage net after their field firing on Yeonpyeong Island, May 3. Tensions are high in South Korea after North Korea's continued threats. South Korea accidentally shot at a passenger jet, Friday, thinking it was a North Korean fighter jet.

Jin Sung-chul/Yonhap/Reuters

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Seoul, South Korea

For ten minutes at dawn on Friday, two young South Korean marines fired repeatedly at a low-flying plane they believed was a North Korean fighter.

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The shots all fell short, and the plane turned out to be a passenger jet owned by Asiana Airlines, one of South Korea’s two major carriers, on final approach to Incheon International Airport, opened ten years ago as the main gateway into the country.

“This is a small happening,” says Song Hye-jung, a senior reservation manager at Asiana. “They only have small guns, so they cannot reach the plane.”

The episode, however, highlights heightened tensions in a region of long-running confrontation, including two attacks last year in which 50 South Koreans were killed. South Korean forces are building up on five or six islands in the Yellow Sea within sight of North Korea’s southwestern coast, primed to deter a repeat of the attack in November in which two marines and two civilians were killed in an artillery barrage on Yeonpyeong Island.

“The marines there are on high alert,” says Kim Tae-woo, senior research fellow at the Korea Institute for Defense Analyses. “Right after Yeonpyeong Island, there was a drastic strengthening of arms. Now our joint chiefs of staff are establishing long-range plans. There will be an intensification of plans.”

Missile tests

Besides sending more troops, tanks, and artillery pieces to the islands, South Korea reportedly has moved missiles to within range of North Korea’s capital of Pyongyang. North Korea, which manufactures short, medium and long-range missiles, recently tested one of its short-range missiles in the Yellow Sea – far from disputed waters but close enough to send a message.

In the case of the incident on Friday, according to the version of South Korean defense officials, the two marines, manning an observation post on Gyodong Island, slightly over a mile from North Korean territory, believed the plane was north of the usual route

“The control system has no direct connection to the troops out there on the island,” says Mr. Kim. “They simply did what they were ordered to do.”

In that atmosphere, however, the question arises about the safety of flying into an international airport capable of handling more than 1,000 flights a day within 20 miles of North Korea. Rhetorical exchanges between North and South Korea suggest the dangers.

'Fighting spirit'

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