SEOUL, Oct 14 (Reuters) Fresh from a summit designed to bring the two Koreas closer, South Korea's president has touched off a furious debate about the line that divides them.
President Roh Moo-hyun was upbraided by former generals, lawmakers and the media for questioning last week whether a naval border drawn at the end of the 1950-1953 Korean War counted as a legal boundary between the two states, technically still at war.
The border off the west coast called the Northern Limit Line has gone from being a contested zone for crab fisherman into a region of deadly conflict.
It was set unilaterally by UN-led forces at the end of the Korean War and recognised since then by the South's military as the de facto border. Pyongyang declared the line invalid in 1999.
''The NLL was originally drawn as the operational limit line for our military. So, even though some people now call it a territorial line, that is misleading,'' Roh told reporters on Thursday.
Earlier this month at only the second summit of the states forged at the start of the Cold War, he proposed to North Korean leader Kim Jong-il an economic cooperation zone off their west coast.
Critics say blurring the legality of the NLL compromises the South's territory and insults the country's soldiers who died defending it. Dozens of sailors from both Koreas have been killed in naval clashes in 1999 and 2002 over the line.
''This a grave matter, which could be grounds for impeachment,'' the mainstream daily JoongAng Ilbo wrote in a weekend editorial, and charged Roh, who has about four months left in office, of ''border betrayal.'' ''Shocking'' and ''reckless'' was the response to Roh's comments from a group of retired generals and admirals.
The presidential Blue House tried to calm the storm by saying on Friday the government's position has not changed and the NLL is an actual border. But protesters still took to Seoul's streets to denounce the widely unpopular leader.
There is no mistaking the land border between the two, dubbed the Cold War's last frontier. More than 1 million soldiers are posted near the razor wire and land mine strewn buffer zone that runs across the entire peninsula.
South Korea, fearful the collapse of its communist neighbour would wreck its own economy, is trying to gradually raise up the impoverished North to make eventual unification less painful. Joint economic zones are one of those measures.
Moon Chung-in, a professor who helped shape the South's engagement policy with the North, said Roh wants to make ''a golden triangle'' of cooperation among the South's air and sea port Incheon, the North's border city of Kaesong -- where the South runs a factory park -- and the North Korean port of Haeju.
That would require free movement of ships across the NLL.
Analysts said the North is likely to seize on Roh's remarks when defence officials from the two Koreas meet next month.
Their last meeting in June ended in rancour, with the North saying the talks were pointless because the South would not bend on the NLL.
REUTERS DKS RK0820