SEOUL • North Korean leader Kim Jong Un has ordered his troops onto a war footing after his government issued an ultimatum to Seoul to halt propaganda broadcasts across the border.
The move came as military tensions on the divided Korean peninsula soared following a rare exchange of artillery fire on Thursday that put the South Korean army on maximum alert.
South Korean Vice-Defence Minister Baek Seung Joo said it was likely the North would fire at some of the 11 sites where the loudspeakers are set up on the South's side of the demilitarised zone (DMZ) separating the countries.
Yesterday, China's Foreign Ministry said Beijing is "deeply concerned"about the state of affairs.
In a statement on the ministry's website, China also called for the parties involved to cease any actions increasing tensions on the peninsula and for the maintenance of calm and restraint.
Tensions escalated on Thursday when North Korea fired four shells into South Korea, according to Seoul, in apparent protest against the broadcasts. The South fired back 29 artillery shells. Pyongyang accused the South of inventing a pretext to fire into the North. Both sides said there were no casualties or damage in their territory, an indication that the rounds were just warning shots.
"The fact that both sides' shells didn't damage anything means they did not want to spread an armed clash," said Professor Yang Moo Jin of the University of North Korean Studies in Seoul. "There is always a chance for war but that chance is very, very low."
Since the 1950-1953 Korean War ended in a truce, not a peace treaty, Pyongyang and Seoul have often exchanged threats, and dozens of soldiers have been killed, yet the two sides have always pulled back from all-out war.
But the renewed hostility is a further blow to South Korean President Park Geun Hye's efforts to improve North-South ties, which have been virtually frozen since the deadly 2010 sinking of a South Korean navy ship, which Seoul blames on Pyongyang.
Ms Park cancelled an event yesterday and made a visit to a military command post.
South Korean television broadcast images of her wearing army fatigues as she addressed a meeting of top military commanders outside Seoul.
"Any provocations by North Korea will not be tolerated," she told the gathering.
The North's shelling came after it demanded last weekend that South Korea end the high-decibel broadcasts or face military action - a relatively rare case of it following up on its frequent threats against the South.
Its 48-hour ultimatum, delivered in a letter to the South Korean Defence Ministry, was also uncharacteristically specific. The deadline is around 5pm today in Seoul, 4pm Singapore time.
Seoul began blasting anti-North propaganda from loudspeakers on the border on Aug 10, days after landmines wounded two South Korean soldiers along the DMZ, resuming a tactic both sides had stopped in 2004. North Korea on Monday began its broadcasts.
Mr Baek told Parliament that the South's broadcasts would continue unless the North accepted responsibility for the mines and apologised for them. Pyongyang has denied responsibility.
"There is a high possibility that North Korea will attack loudspeaker facilities," he said.
Pyongyang's official KCNA news agency said that Mr Kim would put his troops on a "fully armed state of war" from 5pm yesterday Seoul time and had declared a "quasi-state of war" in front-line areas.
There were indications that the North was preparing to fire short-range missiles, the South's Yonhap news agency said, citing an unnamed government source.
REUTERS, AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE