North Korea in war threat

TENSE SITUATION: A South Korean soldier with loud speakers in Paju. South Korea must switch off propaganda units later today, the North says Picture: EPA
TENSE SITUATION: A South Korean soldier with loud speakers in Paju. South Korea must switch off propaganda units later today, the North says Picture: EPA
North Korean leader Kim Jong-Un put his frontline troops on a war footing yesterday to back up an ultimatum for South Korea to halt high-decibel propaganda broadcasts across the border.

The move came as military tensions on the divided Korean peninsula soared following a rare exchange of artillery fire on Thursday that put the South Korean army on maximum alert.

Technically, the two Koreas have been at war for the past 65 years, as the 1950-53 Korean conflict ended with a ceasefire that was never ratified by a formal peace treaty.

Kim has given similarly bellicose orders in the past, most recently in 2013 when he declared “a state of war” with the South, although no clashes resulted. Over the decades, South Koreans have become accustomed to the North’s provocative and belligerent behaviour, and there was no sense of public panic in Seoul despite the dire threats.

Kim chaired an emergency meeting late Thursday of the North’s powerful Central Military Commission (CMC) which endorsed the ultimatum for the South to switch off its propaganda unit loudspeakers by this afternoon or face military action. South Korea’s defence ministry insisted the loudspeakers would keep operating. According to the official KCNA news agency, Kim ordered frontline, combined units of the Korean People’s Army (KPA) to “enter a wartime state” from yesterday.

The troops should be “fully battle ready to launch surprise operations” while the entire frontline should be placed in a “semi-war state”, KCNA quoted him as saying.

In response, the South Korean Joint Chiefs of Staff urged the KPA to refrain from any “reckless acts”.

South Korean television broadcast images of President Park Geun-Hye wearing army fatigues as she addressed a meeting of top military commanders outside Seoul. “Any provocations by North Korea will not be tolerated,” Park told the gathering.

The United States urged Pyongyang to avoid any further escalation, with the Pentagon stressing it remained firmly committed to defending ally South Korea. Seoul said Thursday’s artillery exchange was triggered by North Korea firing several shells in the rough direction of one of its border propaganda units. The South responded by firing “dozens” of 155mm howitzer rounds.

Nearly all the shells from both sides landed in their respective halves of the demilitarised zone (DMZ), a 4km-wide buffer zone that straddles the actual frontier line.

Tensions were already on high-simmer before the shelling, following mine blasts that maimed two members of a South Korean border patrol this month and the launch Monday of a major South Korea-US military exercise that infuriated Pyongyang.

Seoul said the mines were placed by North Korea and responded by resuming the high-decibel propaganda broadcasts after more than a decade.

Meanwhile, the Unification Ministry in Seoul, said it was restricting access to the North-South’s joint industrial zone at Kaesong.

Only South Koreans with direct business interests in Kaesong – which lies 10km inside North Korea – would be allowed to travel there, a ministry spokesman said. – AFP