North, South Koreas exchange live fire across disputed maritime border

North Korea initiated today's exchange of artillery shells, firing into waters claimed by South Korea and prompting a response from the South amid ongoing US-South Korean war games.

Students gather at a shelter during a drill on Yeonpyeong island, an island near the border with North Korea March 31, 2014. North and South Korea exchanged artillery fire on Monday off their disputed western maritime border, Seoul scrambled jets and residents of a South Korean island fled to bomb shelters in the most dramatic escalation of tensions since 2010.

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North and South Korea exchanged artillery fire in disputed waters Monday morning in an apparent new round of saber-rattling by Pyongyang during annual US-South Korean military exercises.

North Korea, which had advised Seoul of its intent to hold live-fire drills off the peninsular's west coast, fired about 500 artillery shells into the ocean. Of these, some 100 fell south of the Northern Limit Line, the maritime border claimed by the South but not recognized by the North. In response, South Korea scrambled fighters and fired 300 shells of its own into waters claimed by Pyongyang in retaliation, Reuters reports.

China expressed "concerns" over the exchange of fire, Yonghap News reports, and urged both sides to "exercise restraint."

The Northern Limit Line has long been a flashpoint for the two Koreas, most significantly in November 2010, when North Korea shelled the South Korean island of Yeonpyeong, killing two South Korean marines and two civilians and injuring several others. 

Daniel Pinkston of the International Crisis Group told Reuters that "It's up to the two militaries either to recognize or reject their own claimed line, and challenge the other's – this goes back and forth, so this is probably another episode of that."

The Northern Limit Lane dates back to 1953, when United Nations troops occupied parts of the peninsular. But it didn't become a point of contention for North Korea until 1973, according to an analysis by the Woodrow Wilson Center. 

The latest exchange of fire follows South Korean President Park Geun Hye's "Dresden Declaration" last week, which proposed a plan to prepare for reunification of the Koreas; it also coincides with the ongoing joint military exercises in the South.

Kim Yong Hyun, a professor of North Korean studies at Dongguk University, told Bloomberg News that the North's artillery barrage was a direct comment on President Park's proposal. “North Korea is refusing to be dragged into plans led by the South, and is indirectly saying that Park’s plan won’t be easy to implement,” he said.

Similarly, Time Magazine calls the barrage "a rather pointed reminder that Park Geun-hye’s diplomatic efforts in Europe, including her speech in Dresden, are very much at odds with North Korea’s plans. Peaceful reunification is not on their agenda, and they do not wish to see things move ahead on her terms."

However, Paik Hak-soon, director of the Center for North Korean Studies at the Sejong Institute, had a different take. "The threats seem to have little to do with the Dresden Declaration," he told the Korea Times. Rather, he says, it's part of North Korea's objection to the US-South Korean military exercises. "North Korea would have carried out similar maneuvers even if Park did not come up with the statement.”

Time adds that, regardless of the particular trigger of the North Korean barrage, "the goal, presumably, is to bring the focus back to stalled [nuclear] talks with the US and others."

If the past is any guide, we can probably expect the North to push ahead with tests, including, potentially, a fourth nuclear test. They said as much on Sunday, warning the world, obliquely, that they may have a “new form” of test in the works.

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