Inter-Korean Buffer Zones Nullified as North Korea Conducts Artillery Drills

SEOUL: The risk of accidental military clashes between North and South Korea has escalated following North Korea's recent live-fire drills near the western maritime border. These exercises have effectively nullified buffer zones established under a 2018 inter-Korean military agreement, heightening tensions in the region.

According to Yonhap News Agency, Between Friday and Sunday, North Korea fired approximately 350 rounds of artillery shells into waters off its west coast, marking the first such drills near the sea border since December 2022. On Friday, North Korea launched about 200 rounds near the South Korean front-line islands of Yeonpyeong and Baengnyeong, prompting local residents to seek shelter and the South Korean military to conduct live-fire drills in response.

According to the Joint Chiefs of Staff (JCS) spokesperson Col. Lee Sung-jun, South Korea's military is set to resume artillery firing and drills near both the sea and land borders. This decision follows North Korea's shelling activities near the Northern Limit Line (NLL), the de facto maritime border in the Yellow Sea, which effectively annulled the mutually agreed buffer zones that prohibited hostile acts.

The latest provocations by North Korea are seen as a response to the partial suspension of the 2018 agreement by South Korea, which was a protest against North Korea's first spy satellite launch in late November. Under the agreement, both Seoul and Pyongyang had agreed to halt artillery firings and large-scale drills near the NLL and within a 5-kilometer border area to prevent accidental clashes.

Following these developments, North Korea has taken several aggressive actions, including restoring guard posts and rearming soldiers in the Demilitarized Zone (DMZ) and the Joint Security Area (JSA) at Panmunjom. They have also been observed rebuilding destroyed guard posts with concrete structures and installing mines on roads connected to the Kaesong Industrial Complex.

The South Korean military estimates that North Korea has breached the 2018 accord approximately 3,600 times, including 15 major violations in 2022. In response, South Korea has rearmed security guards in the JSA and prepared to restore some destroyed guard posts, while keeping coastal artillery port holes open.

Experts like Yang Moo-jin, president of the University of North Korean Studies, interpret North Korea's artillery drills as a demonstration of its willingness to restore halted military measures and test Seoul's response. Additionally, Cheong Seong-chang from the Sejong Institute expressed concerns about the increased risk of accidental clashes near the sea border this year, especially as Pyongyang might seek to divert U.S. attention to the Korean Peninsula ahead of the U.S. presidential election in November.

Previous naval skirmishes between South and North Korea occurred near the western maritime border in 1999, 2002, and 2009. In 2010, North Korea's artillery attack on Yeonpyeong Island resulted in the deaths of two South Korean Marines and two civilians. The legitimacy of the NLL, established unilaterally by the U.S.-led U.N. Command after the 1950-53 Korean War, has been contested by North Korea, which demands its redrawal, a request South Korea rejects.

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