North Korean leader Kim Jong Un has ordered front-line military units to enter “a wartime state” after an exchange of fire with South Korea, his country’s state-run Korean Central News Agency reported Friday.
In an escalation of the tense situation in the region, North and South Korea exchanged fire over their heavily fortified border Thursday, the South Korean Defense Ministry said.
South Korea detected a projectile, assumed to be a small rocket, that was fired toward the western province of Gyeonggi, a Defense Ministry official told CNN.
The South Korean military responded by firing a few dozen shells at the area from which the North Korean projectile was fired, the official said.
The Pentagon is monitoring the escalating tension closely, Cmdr. William Urban, a Defense Department spokesman, told CNN’s Brian Todd.
And a U.S. official told CNN’s Barbara Starr that the United States believes that North Korea fired a shot at a South Korean loudspeaker, and South Korea responded with 36 artillery shells.
The United States believes North Korea deliberately placed mines in the path of a South Korean patrol in the demilitarized zone straddling the two countries, sparking the exchanges, the official said.
Tensions spiked on the Korean Peninsula after two South Korean soldiers were seriously wounded by landmines on August 4 in the demilitarized zone.
South Korea has accused the North of planting the mines, an allegation that Pyongyang denies.
Seoul vowed a “harsh” response to the landmines and resumed blaring propaganda messages over the border from huge loudspeakers.
The move infuriated North Korea, which called the broadcasting “a direct action of declaring a war.” Over the weekend, it threatened to blow up the South Korean speakers and also warned of “indiscriminate strikes.”
A history of conflict
While such tension is worrisome, it is nothing new.
Over the past six decades, skirmishes have flared repeatedly along land and sea borders as each state aims to reunify the peninsula according to its own terms and system of government. Deadly naval clashes occurred along the demarcation line in 1999, 2002 and 2009.
Following Japan’s defeat in World War II, Korea became a divided nation — the capitalist South supported by the United States and its Western allies, and the communist North an ally of the Soviet Union.
Cold War tensions erupted into war in 1950, devastating the peninsula and taking the lives of as many as 2 million people. The fighting ended with a truce, not a treaty, and settled little.
Technically, the two Koreas are still at war.
Besides the border skirmishes, other incidents have proved provocative. In 1968, North Korea dispatched commandos in an unsuccessful attempt to assassinate South Korea’s President. In 1983, a bombing linked to Pyongyang killed 17 high-level South Korean officials on a visit to Myanmar. In 1987, the North was accused of bombing a South Korean airliner.
And now it is happening again.
On Monday, North Korea pumped its own propaganda broadcasts over the border, the same day South Korea started military exercises with the United States and other countries. Pyongyang says it views the drills as a prelude to an invasion.
The North Korean government sent a letter, dated Wednesday, to the current president of the U.N. Security Council — a rotating position held this month by Nigeria — blasting the joint exercises. It called them “serious provocations as well as a typical expression of the U.S. hostile policy against the DPRK,” asking that the topic be placed on the Security Council’s agenda.
“If the U.S. persistently opts for military confrontation despite the repeated warnings of the DPRK and the shared denunciation by the international community, it will be held wholly accountable for all the ensuing consequences.” the letter states.
Pyongyang has made similar requests before, to no effect. And it has also often used even more bellicose language going after both the U.S. and South Korean governments.
Most of these battles have been rhetorical, though the two sides have exchanged fire recently at sensitive points.
In November 2010, North Korea shelled an island near the countries’ disputed maritime border, killing two South Korean marines.
They also traded fire in October 2014. A clash took place between patrol boats in the Yellow Sea, and then another flared days later over land after North Korean gunners apparently targeted balloons carrying leaflets critical of the country’s reclusive regime.
Photo: Republic of Korea Armed Forces CC BY-SA 2.0