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South Korean troops on high alert after naval clash with North Korea

November 19th, 2009

As part of President Barack Obama’s tour of Asian countries, he visited South Korea on Nov. 18 and 19 to meet with South Korean President Lee Myung-bak.

However, prior to his scheduled trip, a North Korean patrol boat crossed into waters controlled by South Korea and, in doing so, instigated a military response from South Korea.

When the South Koreans initial attempt to warn the North Korean patrol boat was unsuccessful, South Korea started firing at the vessel to drive it away.

While this reaction ended with minimal damage to the South Korean vessels, North Korea reported one casualty suffered by the South Koreans with several others wounded although it has not been confirmed by North Korea.

North Koreans claim to have been in their own waters and blame South Korea’s efforts to prevent cooperation between North Korea and the United States as the reasoning behind the attack.

In response to this notion, Pamela Mason, a political science professor at John Carroll University, said, “It seems unlikely that South Korea was trying to hinder bilateral talks between North Korea and the U.S. South Korea has a huge stake in a more normal kind of politics in the region.”

This dispute between the two Koreas is not the first. In 1999 and 2002, navies of both countries interacted in a violent fashion ending the lives of sailors on both sides.

In these instances, the waters involved have been controlled by South Korea since 1953, as established by the United Nations after the Korean War.

Despite this border decision, which was heavily guided by the United States, North Korea has grappled with recognizing the border as belonging to the South.

Although there has been over six years without a naval conflict, the election of South Korean President Lee Myung Bak in 2008 has caused increased pressure between the two countries.

Mason furthered this sentiment, saying, “This event reflects a more tense relationship between South Korea and North Korea since the election of Mr. Lee.”

North and South Korea’s land border also reflects the increased tension between the two nations.  According to Mason, “The land border between North and South Korea is also very militarized and tense.  The U.S. has troops stationed on the South Korean side and we coordinate with South Korean troops along the border.”

On the South Korean side, their troops have been placed on heightened alert since last Tuesday’s event, although no provocations have been detected across the border. South Korea has also sent additional naval ships near the disputed waters to deter any further North Korean provocations.

North Korea responded by stating that South Korea would pay a “dear price” for the naval confrontation.

Even with this altercation on the seas, the United States will deploy Stephen Bosworth as an envoy to North Korea by the end of this year, assuming all goes to plan.

This assignment was prompted by an invitation from North Korea to establish talks to work through the complications surrounding their nuclear weapons program.

Rather than use these talks to negotiate between the U.S. and North Korea, the U.S. hopes instead to encourage North Korea to rejoin the six-party talks it abandoned earlier this year, which also included the countries of South Korea, China, Russia and Japan.

While the reasoning behind North Korea’s actions is unclear, it is speculated that the goal of this conflict was to engage in bilateral talks with the United States. If this is the case, then North Korea has achieved such a goal through Bosworth’s assignment.

“It sounds like North Korea was testing South Korean control of those waters,” said Mason, “while also trying to insert itself more into talks between President Obama and South Korea, President Obama and Japan, and President Obama and China.”