South Korea announced on Wednesday that it had fired warning shots at a North Korean patrol boat trying to intervene after seizing a North Korean ship and its seven crew members in Seoul.
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The incident took place during the South Korean presidential election and in the context of intense tensions with Pyongyang, which has conducted a record number of missile launches since the beginning of the year.
The same source said that after the warning shots, the North Korean patrol boat turned north.
A Defense Ministry spokesman said authorities were questioning seven crew members on board the seized boat.
According to the South Korean news agency Yonhap, they told authorities that they had crossed the inter-Korean maritime border due to a “navigation error” and wanted to “return” to North Korea.
Citing an ongoing investigation, the South Korean official declined to confirm any information.
Leaf-Eric Easley, a professor at Eva University in Seoul, predicts that a patrol boat crossing the actual maritime border will “inevitably take on a political dimension, as happened during the presidential election in South Korea.”
He said Pyongyang usually needs the immediate repatriation of its citizens, but that could complicate the Kovid-19 pandemic operation.
Since the outbreak of the epidemic, North Korea has isolated itself from the rest of the world to protect itself from the virus in a country with extremely poor health infrastructure and a lack of vaccinations for its population.
“People in South Korea may not be welcome when there are a record number of Kovid cases in the country,” Mr Easley said.
South Korea is on the wave of the Omicron variant with more than 200,000 new cases every day. According to health officials, more than one million residents tested positive are currently home alone.
The Yellow Sea on the Korean Peninsula has been the scene of military clashes between the two Koreas along the disputed inter-Korean maritime border by Pyongyang.
One of the deadliest incidents was in 2010 when a South Korean warship was torpedoed by a North Korean submarine, killing 46 sailors.
Pyongyang has denied any involvement in the attack.