South Korean sailors approach the port in Yeonpyeong Island from their… (Kim Jae-Hwan / Getty Images )
Reporting from Seoul — The two Koreas exchanged fire Wednesday along the tense western sea border, a face-off reportedly started when North Korean launched three artillery shells that landed near the disputed maritime line in the Yellow Sea, officials said.
South Korea responded by firing three artillery shots toward North Korea's sea border. No one was injured in the volleys, officials said. North Korea's shells landed near the so-called Northern Limit Line, according to military officials in Seoul. South Korea responded about an hour later with its three-shot volley.
The exchange took place shortly after noon in an area of ocean that in November brought the last lethal exchange between the two sides -- when North Korean shelling killed four people on Yeonpyeong Island.
"We haven't noticed any particular movements in the North Korean military, but we're maintaining a defense posture," said a spokesman for South Korea's Joint Chiefs of Staff.
South Korean forces have been on high alert following last fall's artillery attacks, which brought assurances from South Korean President Lee Myung-bak that his nation would beef up security in the area.
Officials in Seoul said they did not know where the North Korean shells were fired from, but suspect that it is one of the Pyongyang regime's front-line islands bordering South Korean-controlled waters. They said North Korea's shelling came as a surprise as there were no known military drills known to be going on in the area.
North Korean strongman Kim Jong Il often uses surprise to keep tensions high along the land and sea borders that have separated the two sides since a truce was called in the Korean War in 1953.
"I don't think it's anything to be concerned about at this point," said Daniel Pinkston, the deputy project editor of the Northeast Asia Program for the nonprofit International Crisis Group. "It doesn't have much significance."
Lee Dong-bok, a retired South Korean military official, agreed, pointing out that one of the North Korean shells may have even landed short of the maritime line.
"Currently, the North has been trying to create tension to threaten South Korea and the U.S. to get what they want," he said. "But this time they threw a weak punch."
Since 1999, three sea clashes between the two nations have killed more than a dozen seamen from both sides.
North Korea has long maintained that the Northern Limit Line was mistakenly drawn, robbing the north of valuable fishing sites. Experts downplayed the significance of Wednesday's development in the ongoing dispute.
Glionna is Times staff writer. Choi is an editorial assistant in the Times' Seoul bureau.