Korean navies exchange fire in border incident

South and North Korean ships clash off west coast. Iran charges US hikers with espionage. Japan promises $5 bn aid package for Afghanistan. Somali pirates expand operations. Fort Hood gunman linked to Al Qaeda. All this and much more, in today’s security update...
Dries Belet
10 November 2009

Along a disputed sea border off the west coast of the Korean peninsula, South and North Korean warships have fired at each other, leaving a North Korean vessel heavily damaged. Each side blamed the other for causing the skirmish.

The two countries reported different facts. South Korean military staff claimed the North Korean boat crossed the border known as the 'Northern limit line', whereupon a South Korean high-speed gunboat sent signals to pull back, and issued warning shots. Subsequently, 'the North's side opened fire, directly aiming at our ship', South Korean officials reported, after which  'our ship responded by firing back, forcing the North Korean boat to return to the North' and leaving the North Korean ship engulfed in flames. Seoul’s military also mentioned there were no casualties on their side, and demanded an apology for the incident.

According to North Korea, its patrol boat was on a mission to confirm “an unidentified object” on its own side of the maritime border, whereupon a South Korean ship started pursuing it and opened fire in a “grave armed provocation”. North Korea has also requested apologies from Seoul, the North’s KCNA news agency reported.

After a ministerial emergency meeting, South Korean President Lee Myung-bak called for the military to remain calm and for the incident not to escalate. Along the strongly fortified land border between the two countries, everything remained quiet.

The openSecurity verdict: Since the end of the Korean War in 1953, North and South Korea have only signed a truce and still no real peace treaty – they are technically still at war. Moreover, the 'Northern limit line' that was drawn up unilaterally by the UN in 1953 has never been recognized by North Korea. The 'Northern limit line'” demarcates the countries’ respective borders in the Yellow Sea, but North Korea wants to redraw the disputed line further to the south.

The two Koreas frequently accuse each other of violating the borderline. This year, the South’s navy had already repulsed 22 intrusions by North Korean ships without firing any shots, until today. Several fatal skirmishes took place in the last decade, including the sinking of two North Korean warships in 1999 with untold casualties, and the loss of a South Korean patrol boat and six sailors’ lives in 2002.

Assuming the clash was not accidental, an explanation for North Korean aggression can be found in the skirmish's implications for the upcoming international negotiations on its nuclear program. North Korea is due to reengage with sixparty talks and this Tuesday President Barack Obama  consented to send Stephen Bosworth as his envoy to begin bilateral negotiations, after months of 'intensive' discussions with US allies over how to negotiate with North Korea.

Consequently, security analysts in South Korea think that the incident 'was likely a deliberate attempt by the North to create leverage in negotiations in the six-party disarmament talks on the communist regime's nuclear program'. Yang Moo-jin, a professor at the university of North Korean studies in Seoul, told Reuters that 'North Korea is taking this aggressive stance to show they're not backing down on their security'.

This line of reasoning sounds plausible, given Pyongyang’s history of a combination of missile tests and military incidents to improve its strategic position in negotiations. For instance, this year the North Korean leader Kim Jong-Il tried to test the resolve of the new Obama administration with rocket test launches and the detonation of a nuclear device in May. The naval incident in question comes only days ahead of President Obama’s visit to Asia, including South Korea.

On the other hand, the clash also has the potential to backfire for North Korea, possibly strengthening the US and its Asian allies' common purpose, particularly with respect to economic sanctions on North Korea. Whether it is an accident or not, the incident is sure to negatively affect neighbouring countries’ perception of Pyongyang.

Iran charges US hikers with espionage

Three young Americans were arrested in Iran this summer, after crossing the border with Iraq. They have now been accused of spying, according to the Iranian state news agency Irna.

The families of Shane Bauer, Sarah Shourd and Joshua Fattal say the trio must have strayed across Iraq’s northern border, into Iran, by accident. US authorities have repeatedly demanded their release, and the espionage accusations prompted secretary of State Hillary Clinton to reply there was 'no evidence to support any charge whatsoever'.

The situation occurs at a time of increasing strains on relations between Iran and the US. Western countries fear that Iran might want to use the prisoners’ trial as leverage in the ongoing negotiations about Iran’s nuclear program. People convicted of espionage can receive the death penalty under Iranian law.

Japan promises $5bn aid package for Afghanistan

The Japanese government pledged 5 billion dollars support for the reconstruction of Afghanistan, to be spread over five years. The funds will target civilian projects and training for the Afghan army. The announcement comes days before President Obama’s planned visit to Tokyo on Friday.

Japan was under increasing US pressure to contribute in a new way to the NATO forces occupying Afghanistan after the recently elected Hatoyama administration said it will stop refuelling an allied naval operation in the Indian ocean which is supporting troops in Afghanistan. Many Japanese regard this operation as a violation to their pacifist constitution.

Since its historic electoral victory in September, Hatoyama’s Democratic Party of Japan has also stated it wants a more equal relationship with the United States, asking for negotiations to reorganize American forces deployed in Okinawa. Officials from both sides say the upcoming Obama meeting with will be mainly for the sake of dialogue, and that a resolution of big issues, like a reduction of the American troop presence on Japanese soil, is not to be expected.

Somali pirates expand operations

In a bold series of moves on Monday, Somali pirates showed their increasing reach with an attack on an oil tanker in the Indian Ocean, while they also seized a vessel carrying weapons.

Representing the longest-range piracy attempt to date, they assaulted a tanker some 1,850 kilometres off the coast of Somalia, to the northeast of the Seychelles islands. Gunmen mounted on two fast skiffs, firing automatic weapons and rocket-propelled grenades, tried to seize the ship, the European Union’s naval mission reported. However, the tanker increased speed and took evasive measures, managing to escape.

At the same time, maritime officials report that pirates have captured a cargo ship laden with arms. Apparently the ship was sailing under a UAE flag, trying to circumvent the UN arms embargo. According to Andrew Mwangura of the East African Sailors’ Assistance programme, the ship’s name, ‘Al Mizan’, was probably fake. He also said the weapons ship has been diverted to northern Somalia, near a place called Garacad. The captured weapons pose the risk that they might end up in the hands of rival parties in warn-torn Somalia, permitting an escalation in violence.

Fort Hood gunman linked to al Qaeda

In a bloodbath at Fort Hood military base, thirteen soldiers were killed by Major Nidal Malik Hasan last Thursday. On Monday, Hasan awoke from the coma he was in after being shot, while evidence emerged he had contact with Al Qaeda.

Apparently, US intelligence officials had knowledge of this for months, but did not act against Hasan, because they hoped his communications would lead them to a 'big fish' in the al Qaeda network. According to officials, major Hasan exchanged emails with an imam connected to the 9/11 attackers, but there is no evidence he had any outside help in the Fort Hood shootings.

Doctors yesterday reported Hasan had regained consciousness and is talking. An interrogation by the FBI and the military will now have to shed light on the case. Hasan will be tried in a military court and not in a civilian one, which indicates that the shootings are not regarded as an act of terrorism.

Ahmadinejad fulminates against the West

During a press conference in Istanbul, Iran’s president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad alleged that President Obama had not brought the promised change to the Middle East, and demanded that he choose between friendly relations with either Israel or Iran. This claim will render improved US-Iranian relations very difficult, representing another blow to President Obama’s engagement strategy.

Speaking at a summit of Islamic countries,  Ahmadinejad cited Guantánamo Bay, continued US support for Isreal, and unchanging US policies in Afghanistan and Iraq as examples of American intransigence.

Ahmadinejad’s remarks were part of a radical message hailing a revolution in world politcs. He declared that a 'new era is starting' after the 'definite defeat' of capitalist excesses, calling for a new world order. Commentators say Iran is trying to bolster its diplomatic position among Islamic states, following its loss of legitimacy after Ahmadinejad’s disputed re-election and the subsequent brutal repression of riots and protests in Iranian cities.

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