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North Korea, South Korea Exchange Fire in First Clash in Years

Kanga Kong

(Bloomberg) -- North Korean troops fired at their South Korean counterparts Sunday morning in the demilitarized zone that divides the two countries, a move that comes as its leader Kim Jong Un reappeared in public following an unexplained three-week absence.

North Korea fired “several times” at a South Korean military guard post at about 7:41 a.m., and was met with retaliatory shots and a verbal warning, the latter’s Joint Chiefs of Staff said in a text message. South Korea said Pyongyang’s action violated a 2018 military agreement to suspend hostile actions that could prompt tensions and conflict.

The incident occurred a day after North Korean state media reported Kim’s visit to a fertilizer plant, his first public appearance in 20 days. His absence had prompted global speculation about his health. While U.S. officials said they were told Kim was in critical condition after undergoing a cardiovascular procedure, a top South Korean foreign policy adviser later said he was “alive and well.”

Kim unlikely underwent surgery, Yonhap News reported Sunday, citing an official at South Korea’s presidential Blue House.

South Korea saw it as a low chance that Sunday’s incident was an intended military action, Yonhap reported, citing the Joint Chiefs of Staff. South Korea sent a letter to North Korea requesting an explanation at about 9:35 a.m., but hasn’t received a response, the report said. No casualties were reported by Seoul.

Despite the South Korean comments to the contrary, Kim Ki-ho, a former army colonel and defense studies professor at Kyonggi University in Seoul, said North Korea’s latest action seemed to have been intentional.

“In past cases, the North tended to notify the South that it was an accident, if it was a real accident,” said Kim, who was part of South Korea’s military leadership in charge of the central border in 2003. He said the military would typically see the incident as “a low-key provocation.”

‘Divert Attention’

“This time, it looks like a calculated move to dilute various speculation on Kim’s health,” he said. “His reappearance at the fertilizer factory eased speculations on his health, but not enough to kill doubts.”

“Our military, through the military communication line, is taking actions with the North to figure out the situation and also to prevent additional actions from taking place, while maintaining military readiness,” the Joint Chiefs of Staff said.

The two Koreas had previously exchanged fire within the heavily-fortified DMZ, including in 2014 when Kim was unseen in public for more than a month. Hundreds of thousands of troops on both sides of the border guard the DMZ that bisects the peninsula, a legacy of the 1950-53 war that ended in a truce rather than a peace treaty.

The difference this time is that North Korea’s action comes after a recent bilateral pledge to take “practical” steps including withdrawal of guard posts to turn the border into a peace zone.

“It comes at a politically sensitive time when tensions are relatively high,” said Yoo Ho-yeol, who teaches North Korean studies at Korea University and formerly advised South Korea’s unification ministry and defense ministry.

“We’ll have to wait for a detailed military report to see if it was a calculated move or not and would lead to a more serious situation, but the incident itself is a clear proof that we’re living with higher tensions despite the 2018 no-conflict agreement,” he said.

South Korean President Moon Jae-in’s office directed a request for comment to the military.

Past incidents show tensions at the border rarely led to more severe conflicts on the Korean peninsula.

In 2015, North Korean landmines maimed two South Korean soldiers, but the regime expressed regret later. In 2017, a North Korean soldier defected across the Joint Security Area despite being shot at by his fellow troops, raising tensions but didn’t result in further military action.

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