The Truth of the NLL Issue

(English Version)

Hello, everyone. I’d like to speak about the Northern Limit Line that you have frequently heard about in the recent news reports. It is generally accepted that most people think North Korea flouts international laws, but in fact it acknowledges them. North Korea has not ignored international laws themselves, but has taken advantage of them, asserting that its actions are not against any international laws. In October 1973, North Korea penetrated the NLL that had implicitly been agreed for 20 years or so, and this date can be seen as the start of both large and small Korean maritime border incidents.

1. The background of the setting of the NLL

During the Yalta conference in February 1945, the representatives of the Western Allies agreed on Soviet recovery from Japan of a sphere of influence in Manchuria in return for the Soviet Union joining the war against Japan. America had frequently discussed the issue of governing Korean peninsula with the Soviet Union. However, according to the report on May 4th, 1944 of the Institute for Policy Studies of U.S. Department of State, U.S. warned if the Soviet Union controlled Korea exclusively for the interim period, it would lead to serious political problems. That is, US was concerned about the communization of the Korean Peninsula. The Soviet Union happened to declare war against Japan just before the Japanese announcement of surrender. The war was concluded as Japan surrendered on the condition of maintaining its constitutional monarchy on August 9th, 1945, but the Soviet Union launched an all-out attack that day and occupied the northern part of the Korean Peninsula. However, the US Army then managed to arrive at Okinawa in Japan from the Philippines; and if the Soviet Union had refused the US suggestion of 38th parallel as a border, it might not even have been assured that Seoul would not be occupied by the Soviet Union. Hilldring, the US Assistant Secretary of State for Occupied Areas, said in a speech on March 10, 1947, that “The demarcation line was no more than a form of military convenience agreed by two amicable powers under all circumstances. It was intentional and temporary, and was only set to clarify where the responsibility between US and the Soviet Union lies in order to surrender Japan.” While US insists that it did not expect the line to be the artificial dividing wall of Korea, in the long run it became just that, a wall dividing one nation into two.

There was a discussion on limits on territorial waters between the United Nations Command (UNC) and North Korea in late January 1952, during an Armistice Agreement after North Korea invaded South Korea in June of 1950. The United Nations Command suggested 3 nautical miles, then the international standard, but North Korea refused it for fear of a naval blockade. The UNC insisted that it would not matter, on account of the regulation that naval forces should not engage in a blockade of any kind in Armistice Agreement 15, but North Korea continued to resist the notion, and asked for the overall elimination of the related clause. Eventually, the UNC accepted its argument and did not include any regulations on the maritime border in the controversial Article II, 2 of the Korean Armistice Agreement. Article II 15 of the Armistice Agreement states that “This Armistice Agreement shall apply to all opposing naval forces, which naval forces shall respect the water contiguous to the Demilitarized Zone and to the land area of Korea under the military control of the opposing side, and shall not engage in blockade of any kind of Korea.” As a result, the UNC had to move to the south of the land demarcation line in the sea, and unilaterally set the NLL as the maritime border. The North has resisted the NLL since 1973, as it did not participate in the negotiations on the NLL. However, the UNC drew the line in accordance with international practice as it commanded the sea then, and North Korea tacitly accepted it for about 20 years.

Northern Limit Line

(Photo Credit :

2. North Korea’s position on the NLL

The most controversial part mentioned above, is the Armistice Agreement Article II 13 (b). North Korea resists the NLL on the basis of this clause.

<Article II 13. (b)>

Within ten (10) days after this armistice agreement becomes effective, withdraw all of their military forces, supplies, and equipment from the rear and the coastal islands and waters of Korea of the other side. If such military forces are not withdrawn within the stated time limit, and there is no mutually agreed and valid reason for the delay, the other side shall have the right to take any action which it deems necessary for the maintenance of security and order. The term “coastal islands”, as used above, refers to those islands, which, though occupied by one side at the time when this armistice agreement becomes effective, were controlled by the other side on 24 June 1950; provided, however, that all the islands lying to the north and west of the provincial boundary line between Hwanghae-do and Kyonggi-do shall be under the military control of the Supreme Commander of the Korean People’s Army and the Commander of the Chinese People’s volunteers, except the island groups of Paeyong-do, Taechong-do, Sochong-do, Yonpyong-do, and U-do, which shall remain under the military control of the Commander-in-Chief, United Nations Command. All the island on the west coast of Korea lying south of the above-mentioned boundary line shall remain under the military control of the Commander-in-Chief, United Nations Command.

Dotted line is what North Korea claims to be the legitimate maritime border.

(Photo Credit:

North Korea concedes the western 5 islands shall remain under the military control of the UNC on the basis of this clause, but it maintains that as the waters off these western 5 islands shall remain under its control, all ships should receive its prior approval for navigation through these waters. In addition, North Korea says that as the so-called armistice waters were not regulated in the Armistice Agreement, it shall interpret the border line between Hwanghae-do and Kyonggi-do as a demarcation line and then the northern and western waters including these western 5 islands shall remain its control.

3. South Korea’s position on the NLL

The Armistice Agreement II 13 regulated that within 10 days after the agreement became effective, both sides should have withdrawn all of their military forces, supplies, and equipment from the rear and the coastal islands and waters of Korea of the other side as of June 24, 1950. It meant going back to the situation before the Korean War. North Korea should have withdrawn from all islands such as Mahap-do, Changrin-do, and Kirin-do as well as those western 5 islands. However, as the remaining islands, except for the western 5 islands were then under the control of North Korea, considering the situation then, the obligation of the withdrawal of North Korean army from those relevant islands was not regulated in Article II 13 (b).

Furthermore, if you draw an extension line from the western ends of Kyonggj-do and Hwanghae-do, North Korea maintains as its border line, you can see Yonpyong-do and U-do are located to the south of the line and cannot be accepted as groups of islands like the western 5 islands. This means North Korea’s border line cannot be seen as a base line.

The more essential basis of it is the Armistice Agreement Article III. As Article III says, “The purpose of the above mentioned border line between Hwanghae-do and Kyonggi-do shall not have any sense except for marking the control of those western coast islands and any other meaning shall not be attached in the article,” the military demarcation line set by North Korea is to add a new meaning to it and does not have any sense.


4. Conclusion

The NLL issue has continuously been a topic as important as the nuclear issue of North Korea. South Korea and North Korea should solve this problem to prepare for reunification and resolve their conflicts. However, it is unlikely that we might surrender the territorial sovereignty of the Republic of Korea apparent under international law in the name of peace. We do not accept North Korea as a nation under the Constitution of the Republic of Korea, and in reality do not have any control north of the 38th parallel, but as we have continuously worked toward peaceful reunification; it is time we must accept North Korea as a valid nation.

As the mentioned in the preface, it is not true that North Korea flouts international laws; it tries to make a thorough study of international laws to find any loopholes and then takes advantage of them. Therefore, we have no other option but to point out their contradictions in old documents to solve the historically and interpretatively controversial problems. Laws have to be interpreted in view of the situation in which laws were established and the purpose of the parties; it is apparently wrong that North Korea has tried to stage an armed protest and make threats by using the Armistice Agreement for peace. However, in spite of these conflict situations, we should bear in mind our obligation to seek peaceful reunification more than anything else.


Foreign Relations of the United States, The Conference at Cairo and Tehran, 1944 Vol.V(1965)

日本外務省編 戦争史録 4,東京 北洋社,1997

Taejin Yang, Is the NLL the border line or the demarcation line? – in the middle of western maritime border area

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