SEOUL • North and South Korea yesterday exchanged fire across the demilitarised zone (DMZ) in one of the worst incidents since 2010, sparking fears that hostilities will escalate dangerously.
Direct exchanges of fire across the land border are extremely rare, mainly, analysts say, because both countries, which remain technically at war, recognise the risk of a sudden and potentially disastrous escalation of conflict.
Yesterday's incident came amid heightened tensions following landmine blasts that maimed two members of a South Korean border patrol earlier this month and the launch this week of a major South Korea-US military exercise that infuriated the North.
A defence ministry spokesman said South Korea had detected a rocket fired from the North Korean side across a western section of the border shortly before 4pm. "It landed on our side, but struck no military target," the spokesman told AFP, adding that there were no apparent casualties or damage.
South Korean military retaliated by launching "dozens of rounds of 155mm shells" targeting the rocket launch site, the ministry said in a statement. "We have strengthened our military readiness and are closely watching movements of the North's military," it added.
The spokesman said South Korean troops had been placed on the highest-level alert, while President Park Geun Hye reportedly called and chaired an emergency meeting of her National Security Council.
A government official in Yeoncheon county - some 60km north of the capital Seoul - told AFP that residents of several border villages had been ordered to evacuate to nearby shelters.
Mr Dan Pinkston, Korea expert at the International Crisis Group in Seoul, said the motive for the initial rocket firing by North Korea was unclear. "It could always have been an error, but more likely it was the show of displeasure that the North has been threatening for a while now," Mr Pinkston said.
The incident will fuel tensions that have been on high simmer in recent weeks following the border landmine incident. Seoul said the mines were placed by Pyongyang, and responded by resuming high- decibel propaganda broadcasts across the border, using loudspeakers that had lain silent for more than a decade.
The North has denied any role in the landmine incident and yesterday issued a 48-hour ultimatum for Seoul to dismantle the loudspeakers or face military action.
It has also threatened retaliatory strikes after Seoul and Washington refused to call off their annual Ulchi Freedom military drill, which kicked off on Monday and role-plays responses to an invasion by the nuclear-armed North.
North Korea regularly steps up its bellicose rhetoric before and during the annual joint exercises, but rarely follows through on its threats. In the past, its default response has been to test-fire missiles into the East Sea (Sea of Japan).
"Sending a rocket over the border is surprising, because the inherent risks are just so big," Mr Pinkston said. "If it had hit something strategic or caused any casualties, the South's response would have been far stronger, and then suddenly we're on the path towards a serious confrontation," he added.
The last direct attack on the South was in November 2010, when North Korea shelled the South Korean border island of Yeonpyeong, killing two civilians and two soldiers. On that occasion, the South responded by shelling North Korean positions, triggering brief fears of a full-scale conflict.
In October last year, North Korea border guards attempted to shoot down some helium balloons launched across the land border by activists and carrying thousands of anti-North leaflets. The incident triggered a brief exchange of heavy machine-gun fire and scuppered a planned resumption of high-level talks.
AGENCE FRANCE PRESSE, REUTERS, BLOOMBERG