North and South Korean warships exchanged artillery fire yesterday in disputed waters off the western coast of the Korean peninsula, in the latest sign of rising animosity between the bitter rivals in recent weeks.
Officials from the South's Joint Chiefs of Staff and Defence Ministry said a South Korean ship was engaged in a routine patrol near the countries' disputed maritime boundary in the Yellow Sea when a North Korean ship fired two artillery shells. The shells did not hit the South Korean ship and fell in waters near it, they said.
The South Korean ship then fired several artillery rounds in waters near the North Korean ship, said the officials, who spoke on condition of anonymity because of office rules. South Korea was trying to determine if the North Korean ship had attempted to hit the South Korean vessel but missed, or if the shells were not meant to hit the ship.
Officials said that residents on the frontline Yeonpyeong Island were evacuated to shelters, and fishing boats in the area were ordered to return to port. In 2010, North Korea fired artillery at the island, killing two civilians and two marines.
Kang Myeong-sung, a Yeonpyeong resident, said that hundreds of residents were in underground shelters after loudspeakers ordered them there. He heard the sound of artillery fire and said many people felt uneasy at first but later began to stop worrying.
Both Koreas regularly conduct artillery drills in the disputed waters. The sea boundary is not clearly marked, and the area has been the scene of three bloody naval skirmishes between the rival Koreas since 1999.
North Korea has in recent weeks conducted a string of artillery drills and missile tests.
On Tuesday, South Korean ships fired warning shots to repel three North Korean warships that briefly violated the sea boundary. On Wednesday, North Korea's military vowed to retaliate.
North Korean military ships and fishing boats have routinely intruded into waters claimed by South Korea but whose jurisdiction it does not recognise. The Yellow Sea boundary was unilaterally drawn by the US-led UN Command at the end of the 1950-53 Korean war.
This month the two Koreas have upped the rhetorical ante in their verbal exchanges over crashed surveillance drones recovered on the South Korean side of the border. Seoul said a joint investigation with US analysts provided "smoking gun" evidence that the drones came from the North. Pyongyang denied its involvement.
Additional reporting by Agence France-Presse