SEOUL, SOUTH KOREA - North Korea fired multiple gunshots that struck a South Korean guard post in the heavily fortified border region separating the two countries, Seoul’s military said Sunday.
There were no casualties or damage on the South Korean side, but the South’s military returned fire and made a warning broadcast across the border, according to South Korea’s joint chiefs of staff.
It is not clear what led to the North Korean gunfire, which the South said began at 7:41 a.m. local time. North Korea has not commented on the incident.
Several hours after the incident, South Korean military officials said they believe the North Korean gunfire was not intentional. It was not immediately clear how they came to that conclusion.
The U.S.-led United Nations Command, the military body that oversees DMZ affairs, told VOA it is “aware of a reported incident occurring in the vicinity of the Demilitarized Zone this morning.”
“UNC is cooperating closely with ROK Joint Chiefs of Staff to assess and continues to monitor the situation,” said Col. Lee Peters, UNC Public Affairs Director, using the abbreviation for the Republic of Korea, South Korea’s formal name. “UNC will conduct a thorough investigation as early as tomorrow [Monday, May 4] to determine if there was an Armistice Agreement violation, and will provide the report to the appropriate authorities once completed.”
Speaking on ABC’s This Week, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said the shots were thought to be “accidental,” adding that “so far as we can tell there was no loss of life on either side.”
The U.S. military has about 28,000 troops in South Korea, a remnant of the 1950s Korean War, which ended in an armistice, not a formal peace treaty.
A peace zone?
Though the DMZ has not seen large-scale violence in decades, North and South Korean soldiers have engaged in many small-scale skirmishes. One of the most recent notable incidents was in November 2017, when soldiers from the North fired dozens of gunshots at a North Korean soldier who had sprinted into the South at the Panmunjom border village.
The latest border skirmish is a reminder of the obstacles faced by South Korean President Moon Jae-in, who has proposed transforming the DMZ into a so-called "peace zone” that is meant to facilitate economic and other engagement between the two Koreas.
"North Korea firing on a South Korean guard post is a violation of the 1953 Armistice Agreement that ended the Korean War and a violation of the 2018 Comprehensive Military Agreement that came out of the Moon-Kim summit in Pyongyang," says Leif-Eric Easley, a professor at Ewha University in Seoul. "With this provocation, North Korea appears to be showing little interest in the South Korean proposal of turning the DMZ into a 'peace zone.’"
South Korea's Moon and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un met three times in 2018, agreeing to improve relations and undertake a series of joint projects. But implementation has been held up in large part by international sanctions in place over North Korea’s nuclear program.
Sunday’s exchange of fire comes a day after North Korea's leader appeared in state media for the first time in about three weeks, amid intense speculation about his health.
The 36-year-old Kim, who toured a fertilizer factory north of Pyongyang, did not show any obvious signs of new illnesses, although his appearance did little to stop the speculation about his health.
Rumors about Kim’s health emerged after he skipped a major North Korean political anniversary last month. The Daily NK, a South Korean website, reported that Kim was recovering after undergoing a heart procedure. Several other outlets then reported that Kim was in grave condition or had died.
Health questions remain
Many of the extreme rumors were put to rest Saturday after Kim’s reemergence. Some Korea watchers, though, focused on state television footage of the event, which revealed a small, dark spot just above Kim’s right wrist.
Medical experts quoted by the NK News, a website that focuses on North Korea, said that the mark may be consistent with a “right radial artery puncture,” which it said was “often used for access to the coronary arteries for stent placement.”
But South Korea’s presidential office on Sunday said it does not believe that Kim had surgery, according to the Yonhap news agency.
Kim has gained a significant amount of weight since taking power in 2011 following the death of his father, Kim Jong Il. He is thought to have myriad health problems.
In 2014, Kim disappeared for about 40 days, eventually reemerging with a cane. State media at the time said only that he had experienced “discomfort.”
“I, for one, am glad to see he is back, and well!” said U.S. President Donald Trump in a tweet late Saturday. Trump has suggested he knows what is happening with Kim, but says it is not appropriate for him to say.
Trump and Kim have met three times, including in June 2018, when they signed a vague statement about nuclear weapons in the Korean peninsula. Talks broke down last year, however, after the two sides could not agree on what North Korea should offer in exchange for relaxed sanctions.
Although North Korea has regularly launched short-range missiles in recent months, tensions have been under control, partly because of the coronavirus pandemic. The U.S. and South Korea this spring postponed joint military exercises that the North has long opposed.
However, with the talks stalled, some analysts fear North Korea could eventually lash out - perhaps through some sort of military provocation.
At the beginning of the year, Kim warned that his country is no longer bound by its self-imposed suspension of nuclear and intercontinental ballistic missile tests, vowing the world would soon witness a “new strategic weapon.”