SEOUL • North Korean troops fired at their South Korean counterparts yesterday morning in the demilitarised zone (DMZ) that divides the two countries, a move that comes as the North's leader Kim Jong Un reappeared in public following an unexplained three-week absence.
Pyongyang fired "several times" at a South Korean military guard post at 7.41am, and was met with retaliatory shots and a verbal warning, the South's Joint Chiefs of Staff (JCS) said. Seoul said the North's action was in violation of a 2018 military pact to suspend hostile actions that could prompt conflict.
The incident came a day after North Korean state media reported Mr Kim's visit to a fertiliser plant on May 1, his first public appearance in 20 days. His absence had prompted global speculation about his health.
While US officials said they were told Mr Kim was in critical condition after undergoing a cardiovascular procedure, a top South Korean foreign policy adviser later said he was "alive and well".
Mr Kim unlikely had surgery, Yonhap News reported yesterday, citing a Seoul official.
South Korea saw it as a low chance that yesterday's incident was an intended military action, Yonhap reported, citing the JCS. Seoul sent a letter to Pyongyang requesting an explanation at 9.35am, but did not get a response. No casualties were reported in the South.
"In the absence of vision (for the target) and in the fog, would there be an accurate provocation?" a South Korean JCS official said.
US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo told ABC's This Week programme that the US also believed the shots to have been "accidental".
But former army colonel Kim Ki-ho, now a defence studies professor at Kyonggi University in Seoul, said the action seemed intentional.
"In past cases, the North tended to notify the South that it was an accident, if it was a real accident," said Professor Kim, a member of South Korea's military leadership in charge of the central border in 2003. "This time, it looks like a calculated move to dilute speculation over Kim's health. His reappearance at the fertiliser factory eased speculations on his health, but not enough to kill doubts."
Ewha Womans University's international affairs professor Leif-Eric Easley said: "The Kim regime may be looking to raise morale of its front-line troops and to regain any negotiating leverage lost during the rumour-filled weeks of the leader's absence. South Korea and the US should not take lightly such North Korean violations of existing military agreements."
The South's JCS said the two sides are now in talks via a military communication line.
The two Koreas had previously exchanged fire within the heavily-fortified DMZ, including in 2014 when Mr 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 now 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 Dr Yoo Ho-yeol, who teaches North Korean studies at Korea University and formerly advised South Korea's unification and defence ministries.
"We'll have to wait for a detailed military report to see if it was a calculated move... and would lead to a more serious situation, but the incident itself is clear proof that we're living with higher tensions despite the 2018 no-conflict agreement."
Past incidents show tensions at the border rarely led to more severe conflicts on the Korean peninsula.