The rival Koreas traded blame on yesterday for a brief military exchange at a tense maritime border as the US urged Pyongyang to get back to the main business of denuclearisation talks.
North Korea hit out against it neighbor’s “preposterous” military response to what it says were only blasts at a construction site on Wednesday.
South Korea fired six warning shots towards the border area in the West Sea (Yellow Sea), and a defence ministry official rejected the North’s claim that the blasts were from a construction site. A day earlier, officials said the North had likely been conducting military drills in the area and that some shells had landed close to the maritime boundary.
The border spat came barely two weeks after the two Koreas’ nuclear envoys met for the first time in over two years. A week later, a top North Korean diplomat traveled to New York for talks with Washington’s top official on North Korean affairs.
All sides said the exchanges were “constructive,” raising hopes for a restart of long-stalled six-party talks which offer North Korea aid and diplomatic recognition in return for disabling its nuclear weapons program.
The US said the border spat should not detract from any progress on the talks.
“This incident is now over and we now need to move back to the main business at hand, which is for North Korea to show ... that it’s truly committed to the kind of goals that we have together in terms of denuclearization,” US State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland told reporters in Washington.
The talks also involved China, Japan and Russia.
A top North Korean military official accused the South Korean army of wanting to “vitiate the atmosphere of dialogue” and to “push the inter-Korean relations to the worst phase of confrontation and clash” by firing shells near the border. The official said that Wednesday’s blasts emanated from a construction site in South Hwanghae Province, close to the five islands in the West Sea.
“It was preposterous in the age of science when latest detecting and intelligence means are available that they mistook the blasting for shelling and they proved shells fell in the waters around the ‘northern limit line’ though no shells were fired,” state media quoted the official as saying. “It was a tragicomedy that they indiscriminately reacted to what happened with counter-shelling even without confirming the truth about the case in the sensitive waters of the West Sea.”
South Korean Ministry of National Defense Defence Ministry spokesman Kim Min-seok said the response was a justified measure based on the commanding officer’s judgment.
He added that the North’s comments were typically unreasonable and not worth a response.
Even with the flurry of diplomacy, Wednesday’s incident near the disputed Northern Limit Line boundary underscored that tensions are still running high after last year’s deadly attacks in the same area.
Fifty South Koreans were killed last year in separate attacks near the boundary, which was drawn up unilaterally by the US at the end of the 1950 to 1953 Korean War.
Seoul has since ramped up its military in the area and vowed to hit back hard with air power and bombs against a North Korean attack after the military’s response was criticized for being weak last year.
The South says it new hardline approach is working in deterring further attacks, but analysts say the risk of an escalation is now higher.