Sea Of Trouble

Kim Yun Sook knew something was wrong when her kitchen windows began to rattle. Like most South Koreans on Taeyonpyong, a tiny island just 10 kilometers below the Yellow Sea border with communist North Korea, she was at home last Tuesday morning when the battle started. At 9:07 a.m., a simmering territorial dispute erupted into the bloodiest border clash since the Korean War. Shock waves from the distant cannon fire swept over Kim's village. As smoke bellowed skyward on the horizon, the 33-year-old housewife feared for her husband, a crab fisherman, who had set sail that morning. "I prayed for his safe return," she told NEWSWEEK. It's a ritual she now repeats each day before dawn as he heads back out to sea. "The Northerners promise to retaliate," she says, "and I believe them."

So far, at least, North Korea's dreaded counterstrike hasn't come. On June 7 its navy began escorting crab fishing boats below the Northern Limit Line, an ocean border that has divided the territorial waters of the two Koreas since the end of the Korean War in 1953. When South Korean naval vessels sailed out to confront the intruders, the faceoff escalated into a shooting battle that exposed just how far communism has fallen behind. Outnumbered seven vessels to six, the South Koreans dominated with newer, faster warships. Southern gunners used radar-targeted weaponry to return fire in seconds, sinking a vintage 1960s torpedo boat so swiftly that none of the 17 to 20 sailors aboard is believed to have escaped. Another 60 Northern sailors were injured, and a patrol ship was so thoroughly crippled that its listing, smoldering hulk had to be towed back to port. The South, by contrast, suffered only nine injuries and minor ship damage. It was "a battle between a Pentium-based computer and a pocket calculator," a senior Southern naval commander told NEWSWEEK.

In Seoul, generals wasted no time celebrating. They tightened security along the heavily defended land border, or Demilitarized Zone, canceled leave for all 690,000 military personnel and dispatched commando units with sniffer dogs to patrol Southern beaches. They also warned that the United States was ready to step in, and Washington backed up the threat by dispatching two warships and four naval reconnaissance planes to monitor the combat zone, and beef up its force of 37,000 troops in Seoul. With tensions rising, Washington cautioned last week that Pyongyang appeared to be preparing to follow up on recent missile tests over Japan by testing the Taepodong 2--a missile that, according to CIA director George Tenet, could reach any part of the United States.

Strategists from Washington to Tokyo were left pondering why North Korea chose to provoke the Yellow Sea battle now. Pyongyang only recently began to emerge from its Stalinist shell, welcoming South Korean industrialists to invest in the North. North Korean dictator Kim Jong Il remains a diplomatic recluse, but he has allowed aides to entertain peace overtures from Seoul and Washington. South Korean President Kim Dae Jung's "sunshine policy" seeks warmer relations with the North. And just last month, U.S. presidential envoy William Perry offered a sweeping deal: an end to American sanctions on North Korea, if Pyongyang would give up missile and nuclear weapons development for good. Even for North Korea, which often sends subs, spies and other intruders into the South, it seemed like an odd moment to pick a fight.

Deeply isolated and suffering from a 4-year-long famine, North Korea can hardly afford even a little "crab war." Every time North Korea stages a border incident, Pyongyang watchers say the Kim regime is acting bellicose in order to extract concessions--in this case, to redraw the maritime border. Perhaps, but last week's open sea shootout seemed so bizarrely ill-timed that some diplomats fear an even more dangerous scenario. They suspect the battle was instigated by hard-line Northern officers, either in a desperate grab for the lucrative flower crab harvest, or in a deliberate attempt to undermine Kim Jong Il's cautious opening to the outside world. If such conspirators exist, they may have succeeded--at least in part. In Washington, the skirmish hurt prospects for Perry's peace proposal and, says a Clinton administration official, "A further missile test would blow the Perry initiative clean out of the water."

Northern fishermen have tested the Yellow Sea border countless times, but this year was different. Normally, scores of Northern vessels cross the sea border in late May to fish rich breeding grounds of the flower crab. The fishermen generally flee when approached by South Korean patrol boats, but not this time. Beginning on June 7, says Gen. Cha Young-Koo, South Korea's military spokesman, the fishing fleet arrived with a naval escort and "played cat-and-mouse for a week," venturing as far as 10 kilometers into Southern waters.

Initially, Seoul ordered its warships to avoid confrontation. But on June 11, South Korean patrol ships pursued Northern torpedo boats and "bumped" them back toward the sea border. "They had pushed us to the limit," says Cha. "But we tried not to overreact."

The ramming incident ignited tempers. Pyongyang's navy returned at first light on June 12 to escort its fishing fleet back into Southern seas. In Seoul, critics accused President Kim of slackening the country's front-line defenses in a bid to protect the "sunshine policy." "Peace can never be achieved with a one-sided love letter," railed a June 14 editorial in the Choson Daily. Under intense political pressure, Kim ordered South Korea's Western Sea Fleet to mount a "more active forward defense," says Cha. "But the rules of engagement were clear: 'Never fire first'."

Capt. Ahn Ji Young was at the helm of his 150-ton patrol boat when the North Koreans returned on June 15. After he blocked, then "bumped" one of the enemy warships, its sailors began shooting. "Fire back," barked the 30-year-old commander. Then a cannon shell exploded outside the steering room, sending shrapnel tearing into Ahn's jaw. His 29-member crew showered the enemy ship with shells and machine-gun fire in a high-seas shootout that raged for 15 minutes before Pyongyang's forces pulled back. "The North Koreans were weaker than we anticipated," says Ahn, lying in a military hospital in Seoul. "Our morale, training and advanced weaponry overwhelmed them."

On paper, North Korea can look like a military giant. It has a standing army of 1.2 million troops, the world's second largest, and its stockpile of tanks, artillery and many other heavy weapons is far larger than South Korea's (chart). But it is no secret that most of the North Korean arsenal is vintage Soviet supply, and last week's shootout put it to the test in a fair fight against Southern military hardware for the first time since the Korean War. "You see the same slide into obsolescence in their ground and air forces, too. The economic collapse has brought a real erosion of their military," says Larry Niksch, a U.S. congressional expert on the Koreas. "They are nearing the point where the North will lose its ability to invade the South."

The North can still rain artillery shells on Seoul, which is just 50 kilometers south of the heavily fortified land border. In the early 1990s, as it fell behind in conventional weaponry, Pyongyang began to accelerate development of nuclear warheads and long-range missiles. So far Pyongyang has used this arsenal mostly for bargaining chips, particularly in a landmark 1994 trade; North Korea has frozen its nuclear bomb fuel production, and Washington and its allies are building two light-water nuclear power plants in the North.

Pyongyang may be playing the same game now, raising tension in an effort to force concessions. Only minutes after the naval skirmish, North Korean generals strode into scheduled talks with their American counterparts in Panmunjom, the "truce village" made famous by the armistice that ended the Korean War. According to South Korean officials, the allies had not yet received news of the battle, yet the Northerners came suspiciously well briefed, accusing South Korea of "reckless military provocation." Had Pyongyang orchestrated the clash to influence talks with Seoul and Washington? The South Koreans and Americans suspect as much, but insist they are wise to the ruse. "There comes a point when you have to decide you're not going to let the North Koreans jerk your chain whenever they choose," says an aide to President Clinton. "We in this administration are way, way past that point, but Pyongyang just doesn't get it."

Apparently not. By the melodramatic standards of Pyongyang propaganda, coverage of the Yellow Sea battle has been remarkably low-key. The official Korean Central News Agency even acknowledged that one Northern vessel "sank"--an unprecedented admission of defeat but with an ulterior motive. "North Korea usually proclaims its army to be 'all-victorious,' but this time it admitted that its 'glorious' troops suffered damage inflicted by the South," says Lee Jong Hun, a senior North Korea watcher at the Yonhap News Agency in Seoul. "It appears that they want to make this a big issue to win concessions."

It will be hard for Pyongyang to recast the Yellow Sea debacle as a victory. To some diplomats, the skirmish is best explained as a greedy "crab grab" that backfired. Like China, North Korea requires its military to raise its own funds. The Korean People's Army controls an estimated one third of the North's industry, cultivates vast communal farms--and has seen its fortunes shrink dramatically along with the national economy in the 1990s. According to South Korean media, the North's navy controls a $20 million annual crab export trade and uses the hard currency to buy the lifeblood of its fleet: diesel fuel. Only now, instead of boosting revenue, the tension has brought fishing to a virtual halt.

Kim Kyung Goo was busy catching crabs when the battle erupted. He heard the thunder of cannon fire and saw flames leaping high into the sky. "I was really worried," said the 41-year-old fisherman. "I thought war had finally broken out." Soon, marine police came on the radio and urged the fleet to return to port. Kim sailed to his tiny native island, with just 90 residents, and sulked about another day's lost income. "The military confrontation ruined my crab business," he complained, "and nobody will pay for that."

The fallout for Pyongyang's military hard-liners is less clear. Though too weak to openly challenge Kim Jong Il, they may be opting instead to undermine the dictator's cautious reforms. They are known to fear Seoul's "sunshine policy" as a trick to lower their guard, and their paranoia is hard to overstate. North Korean television claimed last week that the United States was behind the South Korean "aggression," and suggested that the war in Yugoslovia--"a hilly land more or less similar to Korean territory"--was really just practice for war against North Korea.

Nonetheless, Pyongyang is taking few direct measures of reprisal, suggesting that moderate technocrats may still have the upper hand. According to the Pentagon, there was no sign that the North had put its forces on heightened alert. Nor has Pyongyang canceled a North-South vice minister's meeting for this week in Beijing, which is now sure to focus on the crab war. And just hours after the skirmish, Pyongyang informed the Southern Hyundai conglomerate that it could continue running its new tours to Mount Kumkang. So as gunboats joust along the western coast, cruise ships laden with South Korean tourists steam to a North Korean resort on the east coast. In Seoul, President Kim vowed to maintain the sunshine policy, which has made these contacts possible. One day after the naval shootout, his government dispatched a shipload of fertilizer to the North, fulfilling a pledge made last month to help relieve the North Korean famine.

To opposition legislators in both Seoul and Washington, this was all too much. Members of South Korea's Grand National Party demanded to know how President Kim could send warships and cruise vessels north on the same day, and attacked "sunshine" as another word for "appeasement." In Washington, congressional conservatives echoed those charges, blaming the Clinton administration for coddling Pyongyang and encouraging its belligerent behavior. Republican Rep. Benjamin Gilman is pushing a bill that would effectively block the sweeping rapprochement proposed by William Perry, which Clinton administration officials describe as their best, and perhaps last hope for peace with Pyongyang. In private, administration sources say, Perry has urged Pyongyang not to conduct another missile test. North Koreans are listening--but to the voices of war or peace? No one can tell.

North Korea's military still heavily outnumbers the South's, but it's vintage Soviet arsenal fared poorly last week against modern Southern weaponry in their first face-to-face clash since the Korean War