SEOUL • North Korea has mobilised dozens of submarines and doubled its artillery units along the border, South Korea said yesterday, accusing Pyongyang of undermining top-level talks aimed at averting a military confrontation.
A Defence Ministry spokesman said 70 per cent of the North's total submarine fleet - or around 50 vessels - had left their bases and disappeared from Seoul's military radar.
The movement of such a large number of submarines was "unprecedented", the spokesman said, adding that Seoul and Washington were beefing up their military surveillance in response.
"The number is nearly 10 times the normal level... We take the situation very seriously," he said.
The North has also doubled the number of artillery units along the heavily fortified land border with the South, he added.
The move came as top officials from both Koreas resumed talks aimed at easing military tensions after a marathon negotiating session the night before ended without final agreement.
The envoys - South Korean national security adviser Kim Kwan Jin and his North Korean counterpart Hwang Pyong So, a close confidant of leader Kim Jong Un - were shown on TV exchanging handshakes and tight smiles at the start of their meeting at the border truce village of Panmunjom.
They are the highest-level inter-Korean talks in nearly a year - a reflection of the seriousness of the situation.
Analysts saw the decision to keep talking as a positive sign, with the presidential Blue House in Seoul saying the two sides would "continue to narrow down differences".
But the gaps to be bridged between the two are daunting, with both militaries on maximum alert and flexing their weaponry across a border that has already seen one exchange of artillery fire.
While the North moves around subs and artillery units, South Ko-rean and US fighter jets have been carrying out simulated bombing sorties not far from the border.
Yonhap news agency, citing military officials, said the submarine deployment was the largest since the end of fighting in the 1950-53 Ko-rean War.
"No one knows whether the North will attack our warships or commercial vessels... we are mobilising all our surveillance resources to locate them," it quoted one military official as saying.
The North operates more than 70 submarines - one of the world's largest fleets - compared to about 10 in the South, according to Seoul's latest defence white paper.
The South accused Pyongyang in 2010 of using a submarine to torpedo a Seoul warship, resulting in the loss of 46 lives - a charge that the North denied.
Tension flared after Seoul accused Pyongyang of planting landmines across the border that earlier this month maimed two South Korean soldiers.
Pyongyang denied involvement but Seoul retaliated by resuming loudspeaker propaganda broadcasts hated by the North along the border on Aug 10. The North calls the broadcasts, which include criticism of its political system, an "act of war".
South Korean President Park Geun Hye refused to accept Mr Kim's demand last Thursday that the South stop propaganda broadcasts across the demilitarised zone within 48 hours or face dire consequences. North Korean troops are eagerly awaiting an order "to inflict a shower of fire" on their foes, North Korea's official Korean Central News Agency said yesterday.
South Korea is continuing the propaganda broadcasts, according to its Defence Ministry.
AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE, REUTERS, BLOOMBERG