North and South Korea exchange gunfire across DMZ days after Kim Jong Un reappears

North Korean leader Kim Jong Un cuts a ribbon to open a fertizler factory in this photo released by the Korean Central News Agency on Saturday, May 2, 2020. His sister, Kim Yo Jong, watches at left.


By KIM GAMEL | STARS AND STRIPES Published: May 3, 2020

SEOUL, South Korea — North and South Korean troops exchanged gunfire across the heavily fortified border Sunday, the South Korean military said, in the first shooting in the area in more than two years.

The incident occurred a day after North Korea released photos of leader Kim Jong Un making his first public appearance in nearly three weeks, tamping down speculation about his health.

The U.S.-led United Nations Command, which administers the area, said it will investigate whether there was a violation of the armistice that has existed since the 1950-53 Korean War.

The North Koreans fired first, with several bullets hitting a South Korean guard post at about 7:41 a.m. in a central part of the Demilitarized Zone, according to the Joint Chiefs of Staff in Seoul.

South Korean troops responded by firing 20 rounds of warning shots on two occasions and broadcasting warnings over loudspeakers, it said.

No casualties or significant damage were reported on the South Korean side.

South Korea later sent a notice calling for an explanation from the North Korean side via an inter-Korean communication line, but did not immediately receive a response, according to the JCS.

A JCS officer said the shooting did not appear to be an intentional provocation, although the military will analyze the evidence including shells found at the scene.

"It was quite foggy and the North Korean soldiers usually rotate shifts around that time," the JCS officer was quoted as saying by the Yonhap News Agency.

He added that no other suspicious military activities had been detected on the North Korean side.

“We think those are accidental,” Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said on ABC’s “This Week.” “South Koreans did return fire. So far as we can tell, there was no loss of life on either side.”

The DMZ, about 155 miles long and 2.5 miles wide, has often been a flashpoint in tensions between the rival nations, which remain technically at war since their 1950-53 conflict ended in an armistice instead of a peace treaty.

The United Nations Command said it was aware of the incident and was “cooperating closely” with the South Korean military to assess and monitor the situation.

“UNC will conduct a thorough investigation … to determine if there was an Armistice Agreement violation, and will provide the report to the appropriate authorities once completed,” spokesman Army Col. Lee Peters said in a statement.

The UNC initially said the investigation would begin Monday, but later said the date has yet to be confirmed.

The border is lined with barbed wire fences and filled with land mines with tens of thousands of combat troops on both sides.

Sunday’s shootings were the first in the DMZ since November 2017 when North Korean soldiers fired at a comrade as he fled across the border to defect to the South.

The two sides also neared the brink of conflict in 2015 when two South Korean soldiers were wounded after stepping on land mines that allegedly had been planted by North Korean forces.

The two Koreas agreed to disarm soldiers guarding a joint area and remove several guard posts and mines in a 2018 bid to ease tensions and eliminate the potential for misunderstandings.

The so-called comprehensive military agreement, which called for both sides to halt all hostile acts against each other, was reached during a high point of U.S.-led diplomacy aimed at persuading the North to abandon its nuclear weapons program.

Those talks stalled after Kim and President Donald Trump failed to reach an agreement during their third summit in February 2019.

“North Korea has in the past conducted calculate military provocations in the DMZ,” Mintaro Oba, a former State Department official specializing in the Koreas, wrote on Twitter. “Unclear what exactly has happened/is happening at the moment.”

“The explanations for an incident like this in the DMZ could range from accident/miscalculation at a local level to a bigger tactical decision in North Korea to heighten inter-Korean tensions to gain negotiating leverage,” he added.

North Korea has been shrouded in mystery in recent weeks as Kim remained out of the public eye, leading to rampant speculation and unconfirmed reports that he was ill or possibly even dead.

The reports raised concern about instability should the third-generation leader, who assumed power after his father died of a heart attack in 2011, be incapacitated.

However, state-run media reported Saturday that Kim had attended the opening of a fertilizer factory near Pyongyang the day before to mark May Day.

Photos and video showed the 36-year-old leader strolling and smiling as thousands of North Koreans cheered. It was his first public appearance since April 11.

He was accompanied by officials including his sister, Kim Yo Jong, who is widely considered as a possible successor should something happen to her brother - who smokes, is overweight and has a family history of heart problems.

Trump, who has insisted that he and Kim maintain a good relationship despite the diplomatic deadlock, retweeted photos of Kim at the ribbon-cutting ceremony.

“I, for one, am glad to see he is back, and well!” Trump said in a tweet.

Twitter: @kimgamel


North Korean leader Kim Jong Un, center, attends a ceremony to open a fertilizer factory in this photo relased by the Korean Central News Agency on Saturday, May 2, 2020.