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YONGSAN GARRISON, South Korea — With the U.N. Command’s watchdog participation, South and North Korea have taken small steps this spring and summer toward dealing directly with each other minus the usual international buffer.

The U.S.-led command, for instance, has not complained to Pyongyang about South Korea’s assertions that North Korean boats recently entered South Korean territorial waters in the Yellow Sea, including at least twice this month.

The Korea Times reported Thursday that a North Korean ship Wednesday afternoon crossed the Northern Limit Line, an invisible zigzagging sea border established after the 1953 armistice agreement but which North Korea contests. The North Korean ship reportedly spent about two hours in South Korean waters but returned without incident, towed by another North Korean vessel.

And July 14, a South Korean navy vessel fired two warning shots at a North Korean vessel that crossed the sea boundary. Over a radio hot line, North Korea claimed it was a Chinese vessel, said Ministry of National Defense spokesman Brig. Gen. Nam Dae-yeon.

Local media reported Thursday that several South Korean military officers might be punished for failing to tell higher commanders North Korea responded on the hot line before the warning shots were fired. The Koreas agreed last month to establish the hot line to exchange information on sea traffic near where the two navies have fired on each other in the past.

However, Barry Bashaw, U.N. Command public affairs officer, said the South Korean navy’s response to that incident followed the established rules of engagement and required no additional response.

Similar incidents in the past, in contrast, have led to gunfire, sunken ships and loss of life. Conflicts typically have been more frequent in June, when fishing boats from both sides harvest lucrative blue crabs around the sea border.

In June 1999, a North Korean vessel was sunk after a 15-minute battle near the line, killing an estimated 30 North Koreans.

The sea boundary also was the scene of violence on June 29, 2002, when North Korea sank a South Korean patrol boat, killing five seamen and injuring 19.

Soon after the sinking, the U.N. Command invited North Korea to meet as provided by the armistice governing the cease-fire.

The U.N. Command — nations that fought for South Korea during the Korean War — has a watchdog role, ensuring armistice rules are followed. But as illustrated by the response to this month’s incidents, South Korea increasingly has had direct contact with the North Korean military in evolving efforts to reduce tension between the two armed forces.


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