North Korea fires rounds into Yellow Sea as South Korean demands return of fishing boat

South Korean forces have 'heightened their readiness posture' after North Korean gunners fired 110 artillery rounds in the the Yellow Sea on Monday.

Ahn Young-joon/AP
A South Korean watches a TV program broadcasting a report about North Korea fired about 110 rounds of artillery off west coast, at Seoul train station in Seoul, South Korea, Monday.

North Korean gunners fired 110 artillery rounds Monday into North Korean waters in the Yellow Sea as South Korean vessels were concluding five days of war games with an emphasis on anti-submarine warfare.

The shells all landed on the North Korean side of the Northern Limit Line below which North Korean vessels are banned, but a South Korean military spokesman said South Korean forces had “heightened their readiness posture” as a result.

Nerves are on edge in a period of heightened tensions following the sinking on March 26 of a 1,200-ton South Korean Navy corvette, the Cheonan, in which 46 sailors died. A South Korean investigation, including experts from the US, Australia, Britain, Canada, and Sweden, has found that a North Korean midget submarine had fired the torpedo that split the Cheonan in two, sinking it in minutes just south of the Yellow Sea border. North Korea rejects these findings.

Bargaining game?

Now the fear is that North Korea will play a bargaining game with four South Korean sailors on board the 41-ton squid-fishing boat that North Korea seized Sunday.

South Korea pleaded Monday for the North to release the boat and its seven crew members “in accordance with international law and practices,” but North Korea remained silent on the matter.

The longer the North held the boat and its crew, however, the more likely it seemed that at least some of them might be held as pawns in the larger struggle over disputed waters on both sides of the Korean peninsula. Officials said the boat may have been picked up inside the North’s “exclusive economic zone” off its east coast, but there’s no confirmation of that.

North Korea was expected to deal far less harshly with the crew’s three Chinese members in view of the North’s reliance on China as its only real ally.

'Truce village'

Even in this time of intense concern about what will happen next, North Korea and the United States have still been able to communicate at the truce “village” of Panmunjom on the line between the two Koreas.

In a one-room structure where the Korean War armistice was signed on July 27, 1953, a North Korean colonel and an American colonel were to meet again Tuesday morning for the fourth time since last month to talk about the Cheonan incident and to try to arrange for a meeting between generals on both sides.

The American colonel has been suggesting the North Koreans study the results of the Cheonan investigation, but the North Korean side reportedly has been repeating denials of anything to do with the whole thing.

Since North Korea originally suggested the talks, however, the fact that they are meeting at all is seen as a possible sign of the North’s desire to cool tensions – and go to the next stage of resuming six-party talks on the North’s nuclear program.

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