The United States suspended, then resumed joint military exercises with South Korea this week after North Korea fired artillery shells across the Demilitarized Zone, Assistant Secretary of Defense David Shear told reporters Friday.
The news of the pause, which happened Thursday, according to Shear, came as stern warnings flew back and forth across the border on the day before a North-imposed deadline for the South to shut off propaganda broadcasts or face war.
“We suspended part of the exercise temporarily in order to allow our side to coordinate with the ROK (Republic of Korea) side on the subject of the exchange fire across the DMZ,” Shear said “And the exercise is being conducted now according to plan.”
On Friday, Kim Jong Un, the supreme commander of the North Korean military, ordered front-line units along the heavily fortified frontier to move to a war footing, state media reported.
His nuclear-armed regime, known for being both thin-skinned and fond of saber rattling, has warned South Korea it faces military action if it doesn’t turn off the propaganda loudspeakers by Saturday evening.
“The situation of the country is now inching closer to the brink of war,” Ji Jae Ryong, North Korean ambassador to China, told journalists in Beijing on Friday. He blamed South Korea for the situation.
That doesn’t necessarily mean war really is imminent: North Korea has used similar language in the past without hostilities breaking out. But South Korean Defense Minister Han Min-koo said Friday that North Korea was pushing the tensions “to the utmost level.”
“North Korea’s offensive action is a despicable crime that breaks a ceasefire agreement and the non-aggression treaty between North and South,” Han said in an address broadcast on South Korean television.
“If North Korea continues on provoking, our military — as we have already warned — will respond sternly, and end the evil provocations of North Korea,” he said, adding the country is working closely with the United States.
As the verbal sniping continued, the South’s President, Park Geun-hye, visited troops at a base south of Seoul, receiving a briefing from military officials on the latest situation, her office said.
Tensions on the Korean Peninsula have been escalating since two South Korean soldiers were seriously wounded by landmines August 4 in the Demilitarized Zone.
South Korea and the U.S.-led U.N. Command in Korea concluded North Korea planted the mines on a patrol route in the southern part of the zone.
North Korea has denied responsibility and refused South Korean demands for an apology.
Seoul’s response was to resume cross-border propaganda broadcasts last week for the first time in more than a decade, a move virtually guaranteed to anger the regime in Pyongyang.
Sure enough, North Korea announced last weekend that the broadcasts were a declaration of war and threatened to blow up the loudspeakers.
On Thursday, South Korean officials said the North fired artillery shells over the Demilitarized Zone that separates the two countries. The South fired back several dozen shells of its own, according to the Defense Ministry.
No casualties were reported by either side. South Korean officials said some residents of the area targeted by North Korea on Thursday had to be evacuated, although many have since returned.
A U.S. official told CNN that North Korea was believed to be targeting a loudspeaker position.
History of disputes
It’s not the first time that the two sides have briefly traded blows in recent years. They notably exchanged artillery fire over their disputed maritime border in 2010 and machine-gun fire over land in October.
But Thursday’s clash was unusual because of the type of weapons used around the Demilitarized Zone, said Alison Evans, a senior analyst at IHS Country Risk.
“Cross-border attacks have mainly involved small-arms fire or, as in October 2014, anti-aircraft heavy machine guns,” she said. “In contrast, there have been frequent exchanges of artillery and rocket fire across the Northern Limit Line (NLL), the de facto maritime border.”
Amid the heightened tensions, North Korea’s connection to the global Internet went down twice Friday, according to Dyn Research, a U.S-based private Internet-monitoring service. North Korea’s Internet access last went down August 10 for 4 ½ hours, according to Dyn Research. The cause of the disruption was not immediately clear.
Is situation likely to escalate?
The question now is whether the situation will escalate further. North Korea has used similarly alarming language in previous periods of high tension
In 2013, the country announced it had entered “a state of war” with South Korea. That situation didn’t result in military action, although North Korea did temporarily shut down the two countries’ joint industrial zone, which lies on its side of the border.
During that period, North Korea kept up a barrage of bombastic threats against the United States, South Korea and Japan. But at the same time, it continued accepting tourists and hosting international athletes in Pyongyang for a marathon.
South Korea said Friday that it was limiting the number of its citizens entering the joint industrial zone, but the complex was still operating. There are currently 83 South Koreans in Pyongyang attending a youth soccer event, including players and coaches, according to the South Korean Unification Ministry.
Jamie Metzl, an Asia expert for the Atlantic Council in New York, said he thought it was unlikely that the current crisis would escalate further.
“North Korea has more to gain from conflict theater than from a conflict that would quickly expose its fundamental weakness,” he said, suggesting leaders in Pyongyang might be trying to “make trouble because they feel ignored by the international community and feel they have something to gain negotiating their way out of a mini-crisis.”
But other analysts said the situation could still continue to deteriorate. The shelling Thursday “raises questions frankly about Kim Jong Un’s style of making tension, provocations, escalation — and whether he knows how to control escalation,” said Michael Green, an Asia specialist at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. CNN