South and North Korean soldiers briefly traded machine-gun fire in their border zone yesterday, raising tensions even as US Secretary of State Colin Powell expressed optimism about diplomatic efforts to resolve the North Korean nuclear standoff.
The South Korean military said it did not suffer casualties in the shooting between two guard posts 1km apart in the heavily mined Demilitarized Zone, or DMZ, the buffer created at the end of the 1950-1953 Korean War to keep opposing armies apart.
There was no comment from North Korea on the exchange.
South Korean military officials said the North Koreans shot first. The South was investigating whether the shooting was inadvertent or a scheme to rattle nerves, possibly to gain leverage in the dispute over the North's suspected development of nuclear weapons.
"We need to clarify whether it's intentional or accidental before we can say anything about its impact on the nuclear issue," said Lee Jihyun, a spokeswoman for South Korean President Roh Moo-hyun.
A team from the US-led UN Command, which oversees the southern half of the DMZ, inspected the site of the shooting near the South Korean town of Yonchon, 60km north of Seoul. The Pentagon said it was aware of the incident, but had no comment.
Decades ago, shooting incidents were commonplace along the DMZ, but they have tapered off in recent years. The last exchange of fire in the DMZ was in November 2001, causing no casualties. A naval battle between ships from the two Koreas in June last year killed six South Koreans and an unknown number from the North.
Negotiations have generally moved forward despite such violence.
Powell said in Washington on Wednesday that he talked to Chinese Foreign Minister Li Zhaoxing (
"So the diplomatic track is alive and well and I expect to see some developments along that track in the very near future," Powell told reporters. The US "is still hopeful of a diplomatic solution," he said.
Yonhap, a South Korean news agency, said North Korea was open to a China-proposed format for talks on the nuclear issue, and negotiations could occur as early as next month if the US agrees.
Yonhap said a possible talks format would begin with meetings of US, Chinese and North Korean officials in Beijing, followed by meetings that would also include Japan and South Korea.
The shootout began at 6:10am when North Korean soldiers fired four rounds, and South Korean soldiers fired 17 rounds from a K-3 machine gun one minute later, said Major Lee of the South Korean Joint Chiefs of Staff. Three of the North Korean bullets hit the wall of a South Korean guard post.
The South Koreans then issued a loudspeaker broadcast, telling the North Koreans that they were in "clear violation" of the armistice that ended the Korean War.
"Immediately stop the provocation," said the broadcast.
The shootout occurred on the 55th anniversary of the enactment of South Korea's 1948 Constitution. Advancing US and Soviet forces divided the Korean Peninsula after the capitulation of Japanese colonial forces at the end of World War II.