Seoul given ultimatum to switch off loudspeakers by Saturday afternoon
SEOUL: North Korea is poised to fire short-range missiles on either side of its territory, Yonhap News Agency reported on Friday, citing a government official.
The official was quoted as saying that joint reconnaissance military assets of South Korea and the United States detected the moves of North Korea’s mobile rocket launchers, mounted with Scud and Rodong missiles.
The short-range Scud missiles were detected in Wonsan area in the northeastern North Korea, while the medium-range Rodong missiles were found moving in the western region.
The Scud is known to have a range of less than 500 kilometers, while the Rodong has a maximum range of 1,200 kilometers.
The moves came after North Korean leader Kim Jong-Un ordered his frontline troops onto a war footing also on Friday to back up an ultimatum for South Korea to halt high-decibel propaganda broadcasts across the border or face concerted military action.
Military tensions on the divided Korean peninsula soared after a rare exchange of artillery fire on Thursday that put the South Korean army on maximum alert.
Kim Jong-Un has given similarly bellicose orders in the past, most recently in 2013 when he declared “a state of war” with the South.
Technically, the two Koreas have been at war for the past 65 years, as the 1950-1953 Korean conflict ended with a ceasefire that was never ratified by a formal peace treaty.
Kim headed an emergency meeting late Thursday of the North’s powerful Central Military Commission (CMC), which endorsed the ultimatum for the South to switch off its propaganda unit loudspeakers by Saturday afternoon.
According to the official KCNA news agency, Kim ordered frontline, combined units of the Korean People’s Army (KPA) to “enter a wartime state” from Friday 5:00 pm (0830 GMT).
The troops should be “fully battle ready to launch surprise operations” while the entire frontline should be placed in a “semi-war state,” KCNA quoted him as saying.
The South Korean Joint Chiefs of Staff responded with a direct message to the KPA, urging it to refrain from any “reckless acts” and warning that it would react strongly to any further provocation.
“We’ve been here before several times, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t still dangerous,” said
Yoo Ho-Yeol, a professor of North Korean studies at Korea University in Seoul.
“There’s a real possibility of this confrontation leading to some sort of armed clash,” Yoo 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, South Korea responded by shelling North Korean positions, triggering brief fears of a full-scale conflict.
The South’s Coast Guard said on Friday that fishing fleets operating out of the border islands had been ordered to stay in port for an indefinite period.
The United States urged Pyongyang to avoid provoking any further escalation, with the Pentagon stressing it remained firmly committed to defending ally South Korea.
South Korea’s defense ministry rejected the North’s ultimatum, which expires at 5:00 pm on Saturday, insisting it would “continue operating the loudspeakers.”
Seoul said Thursday’s artillery exchange was triggered by North Korea firing several shells
in the rough direction of one of its border propaganda units.
The South responded by firing “dozens” of 155mm howitzer rounds.
Nearly all the shells from both sides landed in their respective halves of the demilitarized zone (DMZ), a four-kilometer-wide buffer zone that straddles the actual frontier line.
Risk of escalation
Direct exchanges of fire across the inter-Korean land border are extremely rare — mainly, analysts say, because both sides recognize the risk for a sudden and potentially disastrous escalation.
Tensions were already on high-simmer before the shelling, following mine blasts that maimed two members of a South Korean border patrol this month and the launch Monday of a major South Korea-US military exercise that infuriated Pyongyang.
Seoul said the mines were placed by North Korea and responded by resuming the high-decibel propaganda broadcasts after more than a decade.
The North has denied any role in the landmine incident, and the CMC meeting in Pyongyang insisted that the situation would only de-escalate if South Korea halted its “psychological warfare.”
Meanwhile, the Unification Ministry in Seoul, which oversees cross-border affairs, announced it was restricting access to the North-South’s joint industrial zone at Kaesong.
Only South Koreans with direct business interests in Kaesong — which lies 10 kilometers inside North Korea — would be allowed to travel there, a ministry spokesman said.