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The North-South Korean West Sea Border Dispute and US Responsibility

December 31, 2012
Volume 10 | Issue 54 | Number 4
Article ID 4604
Between 2012 and 2014 we posted a number of articles on contemporary affairs without giving them volume and issue numbers or dates. Often the date can be determined from internal evidence in the article, but sometimes not. We have decided retrospectively to list all of them as Volume 10, Issue 54 with a date of 2012 with the understanding that all were published between 2012 and 2014. 


A recent Bloomberg article and New York Times op-ed provide important and rarely reported historical perspectives on the Northern Limit Line (NLL), a maritime border drawn in the West (Yellow) Sea that has been disputed for decades by North and South Korea after it was imposed by the US following the end of the Korean War. As is now well known, on Nov. 23 North Korea shelled Yeonpyeong, one of five islands near the NLL controlled by South Korea. The shelling was in response to an artillery drill the South's military garrison on the island conducted earlier in the day, which saw shells land in waters claimed by North Korea under the 1953 Armistice Agreement and the UN law of the sea.


Less well know is information Bloomberg retrieved from the archives and reported on Dec. 17. Here's an excerpt: "Then-Secretary of State Henry Kissinger wrote in a 1975 classified cable that the unilaterally drawn Northern Limit Line was 'clearly contrary to international law.' Two years before, the American ambassador said in another cable that many nations would view South Korea and its U.S. ally as 'in the wrong' if clashes occurred in disputed areas along the boundary."


That was the US view some 35 years ago.


Here's a quite different US view today, expressed in a Dec. 15 speech by General Walter L. Sharp, commander of U.S. forces in South Korea, who had this message for North Korea: "We will not tolerate attacks against the civilian population and all provocations will be met with the utmost response that the combined ROK [South Korea]-U.S. instruments of national power can bring to bear and that the laws of land warfare permit." A North Korean attack on Yeonpyeong or any of the other South Korean-held islands near the NLL was one of the "provocations" General Sharp had in mind.


Slightly rephrased, it seems that General Sharp's message is that whatever reluctance the US once had to assist South Korea in defending a disputed maritime border is now gone.


What can and should be done to achieve a peaceful settlement of the West Sea border dispute? In his New York Times Dec. 12 op-ed Selig Harrison, an expert on US foreign policy toward Northeast Asia, suggests redrawing the line slightly further south in a more equitable fashion (to provide, for example, both sides with equal access to valuable fishing grounds), something the US can easily accomplish using vestigial powers it has left over from its command of UN forces during the Korean War.



1. Daniel Ten Kate & Peter S. Green, "Defending Korea Line Contrary to Law Remains U.S. Policy," Bloomberg, December 17, 2010


2. Selig S. Harrison, "Drawing a Line in the Water," New York Times op-ed, Dec. 12, 2010.


Recent Asia-Pacific Journal articles of related interest:


Charles K. Armstrong The Destruction and Reconstruction of North Korea, 1950 - 1960 北朝鮮の破壊と再建’、1950-1960年    
Tim Beal Korean Brinkmanship, American Provocation, and the Road to War: the manufacturing of a crisis 朝鮮の瀬戸際政策−−危機の製造    
Wada Haruki From the Firing at Yeonpyeong Island to a Comprehensive Solution to the Problems of Division and War in Korea 延坪島砲撃から朝鮮における分割・戦争問題の包括的解決へ    
Steven Lee The United States, the United Nations, and the Second Occupation of Korea, 1950-1951 米国、国連、朝鮮再占領 1950-1951年


Update (Dec. 28): In a Dec. 26 The Korea Times op-ed Dr. Hong Seong-gul, a policy advisor to the South Korean government on international fisheries, takes issue with Selig Harrison's New York Times op-ed. He writes: "While Harrison's point about the NLL being imposed by the United Nations forces without North Korean agreement is well taken, he ignores the fact that North Korea had never raised its formal question over the line, at least until 1977." This point requires additional examination. According to a US Department of Defense (DoD) directive on North Korean maritime claims, in March 1955 North Korea's government issued "Resolution No. 25," an assertion of a 12 nautical mile limit, or in the case of the West Sea a sea boundary further south of the NLL. Whether and how this Resolution was made known to Seoul and Washington at the time it was issued is not known by the editor.