UPDATED: Thursday, Aug. 11, 4:35 a.m. EDT

SEOUL – North and South Korea traded insults Thursday, a day after South Korea responded to what it determined was artillery fire from the North – the latest chapter in the tense relationship between the two countries.

Once again, experts are left scrambling for explanations of what it all means.

Baek Seung Ju, chief of the Center for Security and Strategy for the Korea Institute for Defense Analyses in Seoul, said the North is once again stirring up trouble trying to embarrass the South and protest an upcoming joint U.S.-South Korean military exercise.In response, he said, the South has shown a new resolve “to respond strongly and proactively to the North’s provocation.”

However, David Garretson, a Seoul-based professor of international relations at the University of Maryland University College, said this week’s hostilities may, ironically, show that the two countries are serious about improving relations.

“This could easily have escalated into a provocation,” he said. “It could have screwed up (the recent warming of relations), but neither side let it.”

South Korea Ministry of National Defense officials said that Wednesday afternoon and evening, North Korea fired a total of five artillery rounds near the disputed maritime border between the two countries in the Yellow Sea, near where 50 South Koreans were killed last year in two attacks blamed on the North.

The South responded by firing six warning artillery shots northward, officials said. All shells -- including those from the North -- fell harmlessly into the sea, South Korean officials said.

On Thursday, North Korea called the South’s reports that it had fired artillery “sheer fiction,” and mocked South Korea’s aggressive response as “burlesque.”

In a statement posted on the Korean Central News Agency website, North Korea said the South overreacted to the sound of blasting related to “brisk construction … aimed at improving the standard of people’s living” near South Korea’s Yellow Sea islands.

“It was preposterous in the age of science, when the latest detecting and intelligence means are available, they mistook the blasting for shelling and they proved shells fell … though no shells were fired,” the statement said. “In order to make their farce sound plausible, the South Korean belligerent elements made much fuss.”

Asked about North Korea’s claim that the South overreacted to construction-related explosions, an MND official said: “It is not worth responding one by one to North Korea’s stereotypical statements. It is not true. We fired because (the construction story) is not true.”

Garretson said that despite the bluster, a closer look shows that both the North and South exercised restraint, perhaps encouraged by recent talks between representatives of the U.S. and North Korea and improving prospects for a return to the negotiating table.

“Even if it was mistaken, I would still say the South’s response was reasonably balanced,” he said

Meanwhile, Garretson said, if the North did start things by firing artillery blasts into the sea, it is important to note that it is using the response from the South to portray itself as “trying to do peaceful things” despite aggression from “nasty” South Korea.

If the South did open fire in response to construction-related explosions in North Korea, he said the North did not overreact.

“The North is saying, ‘We’ll talk back, but we won’t go beyond that,’” he said. “I would read that as the North not wanting to rock the boat because of what is going on.”

Baek countered that, “North Korea’s assertion is not worth believing. I think the North has the intention of shaming South Korea’s military internationally.”

The North, he said, fired its artillery to protest next week’s U.S.-South Korea Ulchi Freedom Guardian exercise and to further demonstrate why there is a need for talks to ease tensions on the peninsula.

North Korea is pushing the construction-explosion story, Baek said, to embarrass the South’s military for overreacting, and to cause friction between factions inside South Korea who believe one side or the other.

Kim Yong-hyun, a professor of North Korean studies at Dongguk University in Seoul, said the North may have wanted to demonstrate its displeasure with the upcoming exercise, but the rogue nation may also be afraid to do anything that might jeopardize the small progress that has been made recently in its international relations.

“I am not quite sure yet whether it was explosions from a construction site, or the North firing artillery,” Kim said.

Tensions between the two Koreas were intensified last year after two Yellow Sea incidents. First, 46 South Korean sailors were killed when the Cheonan warship sank near the maritime border in an incident blamed on a torpedo fired from a North Korean submarine. Then four people were killed when the North shelled Yeonpyeong Island.

In its statement, North Korea suggested the South’s actions on Wednesday and next week’s joint military exercise were damaging progress that has been made of late in relations on the peninsula.

“What has become clear … is that the South Korean authorities, belligerent forces of the military in particular, are the master hands at plots and fabrications who stoop to any infamy to escalate the confrontation with fellow countrymen,” the North’s statement said.

U.S. Forces Korea spokesman Col. Jonathan Withington said, “USFK is firmly committed to the (South Korea)-U.S. alliance and to the maintenance of regional peace and stability.”

“Our exercise preparations for UFG continue this week, on schedule,” he said. “We will start UFG 11 as planned next Tuesday … We look forward to a realistic and challenging exercise that will strengthen the alliance and increase readiness of our forces.”

Back in Washington, The Associated Press reported that the United States urged North Korea to exercise restraint and take steps to allow the six-nation disarmament talks to resume.

“This incident is now over, and we now need to move back to the main business at hand,” State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland told reporters.

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Yoo Kyong Chang is a reporter/translator covering the U.S. military from Camp Humphreys, South Korea. She graduated from Korea University and also studied at the University of Akron in Ohio.

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