North and South Korea appeared headed toward another clash, as Seoul refused an ultimatum that it halt anti-Pyongyang propaganda broadcasts by this afternoon or face military action, and North Korea said its troops were on a war footing.
South Korean vice defence minister Baek Seung-joo said yesterday it was likely the North would fire at some of the 11 sites where the loudspeakers are set up on the South’s side of the demilitarised zone (DMZ) separating the countries.
Tension escalated on Thursday when North Korea fired four shells into South Korea, according to Seoul, in apparent protest against the broadcasts. The South fired back 29 artillery shells. Pyongyang accused the South of inventing a pretext to fire into the North.
Both sides said there were no casualties or damage in their territory, an indication that the rounds were just warning shots.
“The fact that both sides’ shells didn’t damage anything means they did not want to spread an armed clash,” said Yang Moo-jin, professor at the University of North Korean Studies in Seoul. “There is always a chance for war, but that chance is very, very low.”
Since the 1950-53 Korean War ended in a truce, not a peace treaty, Pyongyang and Seoul have often exchanged threats, and dozens of soldiers have been killed, yet the two sides have always pulled back from all-out war.
However, the renewed hostility is a further blow to South Korean president Park Geun-hye’s efforts to improve North-South ties, which have been virtually frozen since the deadly 2010 sinking of a South Korean navy ship, which Seoul blames on Pyongyang .
The north committed “cowardly criminal acts”, said South Korean defence minister Han Min-koo. “This time, I will make sure to sever the vicious cycle of North Korea’s provocations.”
The North’s official KCNA news agency said its military was not bluffing.
The North’s shelling came after it had demanded last weekend that South Korea end the broadcasts or face military action, a relatively rare case of following up on its frequent threats against the South. Its 48-hour ultimatum, delivered in a letter to the South Korean defence ministry, was also uncharacteristically specific, said John Delury, a North Korea expert at Yonsei University in Seoul. The deadline is around 5pm today in Seoul.
South Korea began blasting anti-North propaganda from loudspeakers on the border on August 10, resuming a tactic both sides had stopped in 2004, days after landmines wounded two South Korean soldiers along the DMZ.
North Korea on Monday began its own broadcasts.
Baek told parliament the South’s broadcasts would continue unless the North accepted responsibility and apologised for the mines. Pyongyang has denied responsibility.
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