NATIONAL

Questions remain 10 years after naval clash in West Sea

By Korea Herald
  • Published : Jun 28, 2012 - 20:38
  • Updated : Jun 28, 2012 - 20:40

President to pay personal tribute to six sailors killed by N.K. attack


On the morning of June 29, 2002, a North Korean warship crossed the inter-Korean maritime border in the West Sea escorting fishing boats. A South Korean patrol boat confronted it and issued warnings over loudspeaker. The soldiers thought it would withdraw soon, much like the North’s navy vessels had done in nine previous intrusions that year.

All of a sudden, a glint of light flashed from the North Korean vessel and the 156-ton South Korean boat was engulfed in flame. A fierce exchange of gunfire ensued that killed six South Korean sailors, injured about 20 others, and sank the patrol boat. Scores of North Koreans are believed to have been killed, and their boat was damaged and towed back.

The 27-minute battle occurred off Yeonpyeong Island near the site of a bloody naval skirmish three years before.

The nation will mark the second Yeonpyeong battle on Friday with President Lee Myung-bak becoming the first head of state to attend the commemoration of the incident.

The event at the 2nd Fleet in Pyeongtaek will be joined by about 3,500 military and government officials, as well as the survivors and the families of those who died in the skirmish.

Renewed controversy

After the battle, the two governments hurriedly settled the incident. The South Korean government accepted the North’s explanation that the attack was unintended. Criticism of the military’s unpreparedness was overridden by voices fearing possible damage to burgeoning inter-Korean reconciliation and the festive atmosphere of the World Cup soccer finals under way in Seoul.

Ten years later, questions are resurfacing over the nature of the clash as new intelligence and testimony pour doubt on the North’s explanation. 
Yoon Du-ho, father of Lt. Cmdr. Yoon Young-ha, touches the bust of his son on Thursday at the Songdo High School in Incheon where he graduated. The officer is one of the six killed by a North Korean naval attack on June 29, 2002. (Yonhap News)

Retired lieutenant general Han Chul-yong, who headed a unit responsible for monitoring North Korean communications, said his team intercepted communications indicating that an attack on a South Korean vessel would take place, 16 days before the second battle of Yeonpyeong.

“The 14-word communications (special intelligence 14) included information that our ships would be fired upon, and specified the type of weapon to be used,” Han said on Wednesday. The same unit is reported to have intercepted a message from a North Korean navy unit saying that it was ready to open fire as soon as the order was given on June 27.

“Including the SI 14, there were two pieces of intelligence indicating that a provocation would occur before the clash but the Defense Ministry ignored them both. The reason is not known but they were ignored on purpose. This brought about the tragedy.”

Although the information was relayed up the chain of command, the information was omitted in the reports distributed to frontline units.

In addition, a North Korean defector who served with the North Korean navy unit involved in the attack revealed that Pyongyang had been planning the attack for a month, and that his unit was put on high alert from 6 a.m. of June 29.

At that time, in response to the South Korean government’s calls for an apology, North Korea sent a message saying that the incident was not planned and that it occurred “accidentally between subordinates,” on June 30.

Inter-Korean relations were more amiable than ever with late former President Kim Dae-jung having held the historic South-North summit in 2000. In addition, the two sides had been holding high-level talks since the summit and had established a hotline communications channel.

Seoul’s top military officials were reported at the time to have leaned toward the conclusion that the incident was not planned.

The president left for Japan to attend the World Cup closing ceremony a day after the clash. The government held a large scale parade for the national World Cup team, the “Taegeuk Warriors” in central Seoul.

Former Minister of National Defense Kim Dong-shin was recently quoted as saying that despite the Joint Chiefs of Staff reporting the incident to have been unplanned to the National Security Council, its members concluded that the clash was a planned attack.

The claim has been rejected by others involved including former Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Lee Nam-shin who says that former Minister of Defense Lee Sang-hee, who was the chief of strategy at the Joint Chiefs of Staff, clearly told the media that the attack appears to have been planned.

The controversy is not limited to the way South Korean military and government leaders acted in the days leading up to the battle on June 29.

Former officers who held high-level positions in the command have since said that they were restrained by the Kim Dae-jung administration’s approach to North Korea in combating North Korean vessels.

According to reports, the South Korean Navy was following a so-called “DJ rules of engagement” that prevented South Korean military from opening fire first.

Survivors and the families

Following the reports claiming that the military commanders had information warning them of a possible North Korean attack, the families of the six killed sailors and others injured during the incident filed a suit against 12 top military commanders and officials including former Minister of Defense Kim Dong-shin, former Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Lee Nam-shin and former Chief of Naval Operations Jang Jung-gil.

“Our military’s patrol boats sustained serious damage because they had exposed their sides as usual in order to block the path of the North Korean vessels. If the information that could have allowed (the soldiers) to expect a skirmish was relayed properly, the sides of the vessels would not have been exposed,” the plaintiffs said.

“At the time military’s high-level officials had let down their psychological guard due to Kim Dae-jung administration’s ‘Sunshine Policy’ and misunderstood the president’s will for facilitating South-North reconciliation.”

Although the families are only now taking legal action, they are reported to have come across the information that the military had relevant intelligence several years ago, but bided their time.

For those who took part in the clash, the second battle of Yeonpyeong is still fresh.

“I hope we all remember the second battle of Yeonpyeong,” said Kwak Jin-seong, a former Navy sergeant who took part in both the first and the second battle of Yeonpyeong. Kwak, along with another Yeonpyeong battle veteran Ko Jung-woo, now works for the defense equipment maker LIG Nex1.

Although the incident was regarded by some as a loss for South Korea compared to the first naval skirmish in 1999, the Navy disagrees.

“The Navy assesses the second battle of Yeonpyeong as a victory, where the northern limit line was protected,” former Chief of Naval Operations Jang Jung-gil said. Jang was the Navy’s top officer from April 2001 until March 2003.

Jang added that although the damage sustained by North Korea is not known, the North Korean vessel was reported as being on fire as it withdrew.

“Although accurate information was not available, (I) think it was a planned provocation.”

Regarding the families of the deceased sailors filing a suit against commanders at the time, Jang said that he was aware of how they were feeling and that facts would be “revealed later.”

For the survivors and the families of the dead, the way the government has treated the incident is another source of pain.

According to the families of the deceased, the Navy had at first decided to hold a five-day funeral for the sailors, and to give the second highest military medal to Lt. Cmdr. Yoon Young-ha.

The decision was soon revoked. The funeral was held for three days, and the highest medal given to the deceased was an Eulji Medal, the third highest order of military merit given by the South Korean government.

The survivors were also subjected to neglect.

Some of the survivors had to apply three times before they were given patriot status, and others filing for subsidies are said to have been told that it would be a “waste of budget” to approve all similar cases.

The commemoration event for the clash was first organized by the Navy, and the role has since been taken up by the Ministry of Patriots and Veterans Affairs, but was not attended by the president until this year.

“The fact that a president has not attended the commemoration ceremony so far shows how the government views the second battle of Yeonpyeong,” the father of a sailor who was killed in the clash was quoted as saying by a local daily.

By Choi He-suk (cheesuk@heraldcorp.com)