By Soo-hyang Choi and Hyonhee Shin
SEOUL (Reuters) -North and South Korea exchanged warning shots off the west coast on Monday, accusing each other of breaching their maritime borders amid heightened military tension.
The South’s Joint Chiefs of Staff (JCS) said it broadcast warnings and fired warning shots to see off a North Korean merchant vessel that crossed the Northern Limit Line (NLL), the de facto sea boundary, at around 3:40 a.m. (1840 GMT Sunday).
The North’s military said it fired 10 rocket artillery rounds after a South Korean navy ship violated the sea border and fired warning shots “on the pretext of tracking down an unidentified ship,” according to state media.
“We ordered initial countermeasures to strongly expel the enemy warship,” a spokesperson for the General Staff of the North’s Korean People’s Army said, according to the official KCNA news agency.
The JCS called the North’s move a violation of a 2018 bilateral military pact banning “hostile acts” in the border areas, and urged it to cease “consistent provocations and accusations.”
Since the 1990s, Pyongyang has been disputing the NLL, drawn up at the end of the 1950-53 Korean War, claiming it should lie far to the south.
An official at South Korea’s military said it had conducted a “normal operation” regarding the border intrusion and rejects the North’s claim over the NLL.
The latest exchange of fire came amid simmering tensions, with the North carrying out weapons tests at an unprecedented pace this year.
In recent weeks, North Korea launched short-range ballistic missiles and hundreds of artillery rounds off its east and west coasts on several occasions in protest over the South’s military activities.
South Korea’s troops kicked off their annual Hoguk defence drills last week, designed to run until Oct. 28 and boost their own and combined ability with the United States to counter the North’s nuclear and missile threats.
As part of the programme, South Korean naval forces said on Monday that they would stage four-day exercises off the west coast, bringing together about 20 warships, including their Aegis-equipped destroyer and U.S. assets such as Apache attack helicopters and A-10 strike aircraft.
Pyongyang has angrily reacted to the drills, calling them provocations and threatening countermeasures. Seoul and Washington say their exercises are defensive and aimed at deterring the North.