SEOUL, South Korea — The Nov. 10 naval clash in disputed Korean waters between North and South Korean forces ended in an intense exchange of fire and the retreat of a North Korean vessel enveloped in flames.
The skirmish off the west coast of the Korean Peninsula — the first in seven years — was a stark reminder that the two Koreas are still at war. But most analysts believe that what appeared to be an aggressive clash was in fact a sign from Pyongyang that it is willing to continue engaging with the rest of the world.
Analysts believe by temporarily escalating tension in the disputed waters, North Korea is trying to speed up dialogue between the U.S. and Pyongyang, and also lay out a new track for North and South Korean relations — essentially, working toward a non-confrontational stance that is different from the one it took with the conservative administration that took office in 2008.
The South’s military announced its patrol boat had sent warnings to the North Korean ship, which it accused of crossing into South Korean waters. The North Korean ship, which claimed to be investigating an unidentified object, the military said, opened fire on the patrol boat and the South retaliated with gunfire. The foreign vessel then retreated to North Korean waters engulfed in flames.
Unlike the next most recent naval clash seven years ago that resulted in the death of both North and South Korean military forces, no casualties were reported from the South Korean side after Tuesday's clash.
Pyongyang has since issued a statement through its state-run news agency demanding an apology from South Korea.
The western waters are considered a hot spot when it comes to military disputes between the two Koreas. The Northern Limit Line is what divides North and South Korean waters, but Pyongyang does not recognize the United Nations-designated maritime border, and it has been a habitual provocation tool used by North Korea to escalate tension on the peninsula.
Shortly after the incident, the South Korean president, Lee Myung-bak, held an emergency meeting with security-related ministers and expressed concern about retaliation from the North, a possibility that experts do not rule out.
“But the North isn’t going to let tensions escalate with the talks between Pyongyang and Washington coming up soon,” Yang Moo-jin, a North Korea expert from The Institute for Far Eastern Studies, said.
Many North Korean watchers speculated the naval clash was a calculated move with U.S. President Barack Obama’s upcoming visit to South Korea and recently announced one-on-one talks between Pyongyang and Washington’s nuclear envoy looming.
In the past, such incidents have been preceded by harsh rhetoric against the marine boundary on the part of North Korea. This time, there was no such talk, leading one analyst to believe it could have even been an unplanned event caused by excessive military tension.
Even so, the North is likely to use this to make a point that the two Koreas need to sign a peace treaty, which it sees as a means to secure its position in the global community, Yang said. The peace treaty was also something the North saw as necessary in order to step away from its arms program. The two Koreas signed an armistice in 1953 after the Korean War and are still technically at war.
While Pyongyang could resort to its arsenal of usual retaliatory moves — such as provoking forces along the demilitarized zone or kidnapping South Korean fishing boats — one analyst believes North Korea is actually looking to make nice.
Choi Jin-wook, from Korea Institute of National Unification, believes anything Pyongyang does will still be an effort to improve the dynamics in inter-Korean relations. The recent conciliatory moves the North has been making since August, such as agreeing to hold reunions for separated families, are a result of a change in attitude in Pyongyang.
“North Korea has been in a very bad [food] situation, not even bad, a desperate situation since last year, and so it changed its policies in order to try and find a way out,” Choi said.
By playing friendly to the South and the rest of the world, Pyongyang was most likely hoping to receive help from Seoul which resulted in an offer of 10,000 tons of corn to the North, a mere fraction compared to aid sent from liberal administrations in the past.
“Pyongyang realized that its new approach wasn’t working, but it couldn’t afford to just sit around, so I think by raising tension it’s trying to obtain its goal,” said Choi.
“It seems like North Korea has made up its mind to create a new version of North and South Korean relations,” Choi said.
But it simply hasn’t figured out what that is.