Why did North Korea fire a missile across the maritime border

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For the first time in nearly 70 years, nuclear-armed North Korea on Wednesday fired a ballistic missile across the de facto maritime border that separates it from the South.

Seoul, which suspended flight routes and warned island residents in the area to hide in bunkers, called it “effectively a territorial invasion”, firing three missiles of its own in response.

AFP looks at what is going on:

– Did the missile hit South Korea? –

No, but it came close.

One short-range ballistic missile landed just 57 kilometres (35 miles) off the South Korean coast in international waters.

Seoul’s military said it was the “first time since the peninsula was divided” at the end of Korean War hostilities in 1953 that a North Korean missile had landed so close to the South’s territorial waters.

It splashed down 26 kilometres south of the Northern Limit Line, the de facto maritime border between the two countries, which remain technically at war since the conflict ended with an armistice not a peace treaty.

– What’s this border? –

On land, North and South Korea are divided by a clearly marked, heavily-fortified border, the full length of which bristles with barbed-wire, is studded with gun-turrets, and patrolled by soldiers.

At sea, after the armistice agreement, the US-led United Nations Command drew the Northern Limit Line to prevent accidental clashes between the two sides.

North Korea never officially recognised the border, claiming it should be further south.

Pyongyang thinks the Northern Limit Line is “a significant disadvantage to them,” Cheong Seong-chang, a researcher at the Sejong Institute, told AFP.

Buoyed with confidence in their nuclear weapons programmes, they may now be looking to “nullify” the de facto border, he added.

– Has it happened before? –

The maritime border has always been a flashpoint and was the scene of brief but bloody naval clashes in 1999, 2002 and 2009.

In 1999, a North Korean patrol boat violated the Northern Limit Line by up to 10 kilometres, but was defeated and retreated after a gun-battle, which killed several North Koreans.

In November 2010, North Korea shelled the South’s Yeonpyeong island, which is close to the maritime border, killing four South Koreans and briefly triggering concerns of a full-scale conflict.

Last month, Seoul’s military fired warning shots at a North Korean ship that crossed the disputed maritime border, prompting the North to fire a warning in return.

– What’s this ‘buffer zone’? –

At a summit in Pyongyang in 2018, former South Korean president Moon Jae-in and the North’s Kim Jong Un agreed to establish buffer zones along land and sea boundaries in a bid to reduce tensions.

But since talks collapsed in 2019, Kim has doubled down on his banned weapons programs, and experts say he’s now testing South Korea by violating the buffer zone agreement.

The North fired repeated artillery barrages into the buffer zone last month, and did so again Wednesday — which Seoul says is a “clear violation” of the 2018 agreement.

– What’s the point? –

It’s all a “deliberate provocation that is meant to raise political tensions on the peninsula,” Ahn Chan-il, a North Korean studies scholar, told AFP.

Kim is making a point, Ahn said: “They’re capable of destroying the South if they wanted to”.

Washington and Seoul have repeatedly warned all Kim’s recent missile launches could culminate in another nuclear test — which would be Pyongyang’s seventh.

“These are North Korea’s pre-celebration events ahead of their upcoming nuclear test,” Ahn said.

“They also seem like a series of practical tests for their tactical nuclear deployment.”

– Why now? –

This week, Seoul and Washington are staging their largest-ever joint air drills, dubbed “Vigilant Storm”, which involve hundreds of warplanes from both sides.

Pyongyang said it was “an aggressive and provocative military drill targeting the DPRK,” Pak Jong Chon, secretary of the Central Committee of the Workers’ Party of Korea, said in a statement published by state media.

If the exercises continue, Pak warned that Seoul and Washington will “pay the most horrible price in history.”

North Korea revised its laws in September, with leader Kim declaring the country to be an “irreversible” nuclear power — effectively ending negotiations over its banned arms programs.

“North Korea is a pariah state,” said Leif-Eric Easley, a professor at Ewha University in Seoul.

Pyongyang may talk about “US hostile policy” but its weapons programs have been developed “primarily because of the Kim regime’s aggressive intentions toward Seoul.”

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