North Korea's firing escalates tensions at sea border
North Korea fired over 200 artillery rounds near the disputed maritime border with South Korea on Friday, escalating tensions and prompting South Korea to conduct live fire drills in response.
The artillery exchange led to the evacuation of residents on two South Korean islands near the western maritime border to bomb shelters, following orders from the South's military. South Korea fired live rounds toward the Northern Limit Line (NLL), the contentious sea border.
South Korea's military confirmed that the North's firing caused no civilian or military harm. "This is a provocative act that heightens tension and threatens peace on the Korean peninsula," South Korea's Defence Minister Shin Won-sik commented while overseeing the firing drills.
All North Korean shells fell north of the sea border, said South Korean military spokesman Lee Sung-joon, noting ongoing surveillance of North Korean movements along the coast, supported by the U.S. military.
South Korea's Defence Ministry reported that Marine brigades on Yeonpyeong and Baengnyeong islands fired south of the NLL, demonstrating a robust operational response. The drills included mechanized artillery and tanks.
China, North Korea's primary ally, called for restraint and encouraged dialogue between the two Koreas.
Yeonpyeong, housing over 2,000 residents and troops, lies about 120 km (75 miles) west of Seoul, accessible by a ferry journey exceeding 2.5 hours.
Leif-Eric Easley, a professor at Ewha University in Seoul, noted North Korea's typical winter drill artillery fire. However, he underscored a shift this year, as North Korean leader Kim Jong-un has renounced reconciliation with South Korea, declaring it an enemy state.
The disputed NLL waters have witnessed several fatal clashes, including naval battles and the sinking of a South Korean corvette in 2010, believed to be by a North Korean torpedo, killing 46 sailors.
In November 2010, North Korean artillery targeted Yeonpyeong island, killing two soldiers and two civilians in one of the most severe attacks since the Korean War's end in 1953. North Korea claimed it acted in response to South Korean live-fire drills in its territorial waters.
The NLL, established at the Korean War's end, faced North Korean challenges from the 1970s, with Pyongyang advocating for a southern border.
Residents of Baengnyeong island, also near the sea border and home to about 4,900 people, sought shelter on Friday as well.
North Korea recently warned of escalating war risks due to actions by the U.S. and South Korean militaries. Both Koreas have pledged strong military responses if attacked.
In November, North Korea declared a 2018 agreement to reduce tension and prevent accidental conflict invalid, following South Korea's announcement of resumed border drills. The agreement included halting military exercises near the land and sea borders.