North and South Korea traded artillery fire across their disputed maritime border on Monday.
The North conducted extensive live-fire military drills off its southern coast on Monday, some of its artillery shells falling south of the disputed sea border with South Korea, in a military provocation that came a day after the North threatened to conduct more nuclear tests.
Marines in South Korean border islands fired back, launching artillery shells north of the disputed sea border, the South Korean military said.
"Some of the shells fired by North Korea dropped in our area and our side responded with fire," a spokesman for the South Korean Joint Chiefs of Staff said.
On South Korea-controlled Baengnyeong island, close to the maritime boundary, officials said residents had been taken to shelters as a precaution.
"We are urging all residents to evacuate to shelters right now, and some have already done so," a town hall official on the island said.
South Korean officials said on Monday that the shells from both sides appeared to have fallen harmlessly into waters from which naval and fishing boats have stayed clear.
Such exchanges of artillery in the disputed waters were not unprecedented, but rising military tensions there indicated that, after months of a relative lull, hostilities between the two Koreas have begun ratcheting up again.
And they raised fears that the often-repeated cycle of peace overtures and provocations has turned its wheels once again on the divided Korean Peninsula.
North Korea has test-fired a series of rockets and short- and mid-range ballistic missiles in recent weeks, citing the joint military exercises Washington and Seoul started in late February as a justification.
The tests prompted the UN Security Council to warn last week of more censure against the country, which is already under heavy sanctions.
On Sunday, Pyongyang lashed out by threatening "a new form of nuclear test" and warning that its Korean People's Army would conduct drills aimed at improving its ability to attack mid- and long-range targets with "more diversified nuclear deterrence" and "with a variety of striking power."
Earlier on Monday, it declared seven live-fire zones along the disputed sea border hugging the southern coast of North Korea and warned South Korean fishing boats out of the area.
The western waters are the most dangerous flash points along the border between North and South Korea.
A string of South Korean islands, guarded by marines and heavy artillery, lie just south of the maritime border and within the range of massive arrays of North Korean coastal guns and rocket launchers.
The waters were the scene of several naval skirmishes in recent years and an artillery duel in 2010.
The firing zones North Korea had earlier announced lie north of the "northern limit line", or NLL, the sea border South Korea tried to defend, although North Korea does not recognise it.
"We told the North that we will respond powerfully if any of its firing violates the NLL," the South Korean military had said in a statement on Monday.
In 2010, North Korea fired hundreds of artillery rounds into disputed waters, some of them falling south of the NLL. Later that year, it shelled one of the South Korean border islands, killing four people and prompting the South to retaliate with its own artillery barrage at North Korean gun positions.
There was no sign of an imminent nuclear test from North Korea, but the South Korean military was operating an emergency response system to handle North Korean provocations promptly, the South Korean National Defence Ministry said on Monday.
The impoverished Communist government has conducted three underground nuclear tests since 2006.
In 2010, a South Korean warship sank in the area with the loss of 46 lives.
North Korea slams UN human-rights resolution
North Korea has also lashed out at the UN’s top rights body for its ‘‘vicious, hostile’’ act in adopting a resolution condemning Pyongyang’s record of systematic human rights abuse.
The resolution, approved on Friday by the 47-member UN Human Rights Council, urged the UN Security Council to ensure that those responsible for ‘‘gross human rights violations’’ in North Korea be held to account.
It was adopted on the back of a damning 400-page UN report by retired Australian judge Michael Kirby that detailed endemic abuses, including rape, torture and enslavement, that could amount to crimes against humanity.
In a statement carried on the North’s official KCNA news agency, Pyongyang’s foreign ministry said it ‘‘totally opposes and rejects’’ the resolution, which it called a product a ‘‘vicious, hostile policy’’ engineered by the United States.
Dismissing the UN rights report as the work of ‘‘political swindlers’’, the ministry said the US and other hostile forces were seeking to fuel a ‘‘human rights racket’’ aimed at toppling the North Korean leadership.
North Korea’s key ally China, which has a veto at the UN Security Council, would most likely reject any referral of North Korean rights abuse cases to the ICC in the Hague.
New York Times, AFP