- The Washington Times - Thursday, August 20, 2015

U.S. officials expressed growing alarm Thursday after North and South Korea fired dozens of artillery rounds at each other, ratcheting tensions on the divided peninsula to their highest point in nearly a year.

South Korea, which is engaged in annual joint military drills with the U.S., fired back at the North after Pyongyang launched a barrage of shells southward in anger over Seoul’s broadcasting of anti-North propaganda messages across the Demilitarized Zone.

And on Friday morning, North Korea upped the ante further, at least rhetorically, saying its troops near the border are in a “quasi-state of war” and should be ready for any operations by Friday evening.

North-South tensions traditionally soar during U.S.-South Korean drills, but some analysts voiced concern Thursday that domestic factors in North Korea may be dangerously increasing the prospects for a more serious escalation this time.

“The reason that this could escalate is miscalculation,” said Patrick M. Cronin, who heads the Asia-Pacific Security Program at the Center for a New American Security. “And the miscalculation begins with [North Korean leader] Kim Jong-un thinking that he can get away with impunity — or thinking that he can escalate without risking conflict.”

The 32-year-old dictator is more prone to such miscalculation at the moment because of a variety of internal factors, Mr. Cronin said, not the least of which is his frustration over a lack of progress in North Korea’s nuclear weapons program.

Disagreements between Mr. Kim and his nation’s top military leaders also have been festering. Since assuming power after the 2011 death of his father, Kim Jong-il, Mr. Kim has pushed hard for more spending on nuclear weapons development and economic programs over funding the nation’s conventional military.

Mr. Cronin said the reality has prompted North Korean military backlash to Mr. Kim’s leadership — the unpredictability of which makes tensions with the South “more dangerous than in the past.”

South Korean officials said the North fired one anti-aircraft shell followed by multiple shells from a direct-fire weapon Thursday. The Defense Ministry said the first shell landed in an area roughly 35 miles north of Seoul in the western part of the border zone.

South Korea’s military responded by firing dozens of artillery rounds and raised its alert status to the highest level.

Neither country reported any casualties or damage, but nearly 800 South Koreans living near the border were ordered to evacuate.

On Friday, the North’s official Korean Central News Agency said Mr. Kim had ordered his troops “be fully ready for any military operations at any time from 5 p.m. Friday,” which would be 4 a.m. EDT in the U.S.

The KCNA report said that “military commanders were urgently dispatched for operations to attack South Korean psychological warfare facilities if the South doesn’t stop operating them.”

While the Pentagon and State Department stressed Washington’s commitment to protecting South Korea, U.S. officials appeared cautious about further inflaming the situation.

“We’re certainly closely monitoring this situation, and we’re concerned by the firing of a projectile into South Korea from the North,” said State Department spokesman John Kirby. “These kinds of provocative actions only heighten tensions, and we call on Pyongyang to refrain from actions and rhetoric that threaten regional peace and stability.”

Regional worries

The exchange of fire spread concerns across the region.

“We cannot help but be concerned,” a Russian Foreign Ministry source told Russia’s Interfax news agency. “The way the situation is unfolding certainly cannot suit us.”

There was uncertainty over how China, whose navy is engaged in its largest-ever joint exercises with the Russian navy in the nearby East Sea/Sea of Japan, might respond.

Mr. Cronin said the Chinese are engaged in “strategic ambiguity” but Beijing’s priority is “stability first.”

If North Korea appears to be provoking a significant escalation, Mr. Cronin said, then “it’s hard to see how the Chinese would come down.”

“It may be the first time the Chinese really show that they’re basically with the U.S. on the issue,” he said.

The exchange of fire was the first between the two Koreas since October, when North Korean soldiers approached the military border and did not retreat after the South fired warning shots, the South Korean Defense Ministry said at the time.

The North’s soldiers fired back in an exchange of gunfire that lasted about 10 minutes, with no casualties.

Tension between the two Koreas has risen since early this month, when landmine explosions in the DMZ wounded two South Korean soldiers. Seoul accused the North of laying the mines, which Pyongyang denied.

The incident is widely seen to have prompted the South to broadcast propaganda messages through loudspeakers across the border. The broadcasts, which began Aug. 10, resumed a tactic from which both sides refrained since 2004.

North Korea initially demanded that the South stop the broadcasts or face military action but began conducting its own broadcasts Monday.

Despite the exchange of fire, there were signs Thursday that the situation could be resolved without further violence. The North, for instance, did not return fire after the South unleashed its retaliatory shells northward.

While Pyongyang has warned Seoul that it will take further military action if the loudspeaker broadcasts are not stopped within 48 hours, officials from the North reportedly also sent a letter to Seoul offering a diplomatic opening to resolve the tensions.

It was not immediately clear how Seoul would respond. Reuters cited an unidentified South Korean military official as saying the South has no plans to halt the broadcasts.

Some 28,000 U.S. military personnel are stationed inside South Korea, which has remained in a technical state of conflict with the North since the 1950-1953 Korean War ended in a truce rather than a peace treaty.

A Pentagon spokesman on Thursday told South Korea’s largest news agency, Yonhap, that the “safety of [U.S.] personnel and families is paramount and we will take prudent measures to ensure their well-being.” He did not elaborate on what such measures might entail.

The U.S. and South Korea have been engaged in joint military exercises since Monday. A report by Voice of America said as many as 80,000 American and South Korean forces are taking part in the computer-generated Ulchi Freedom exercise, which simulates a response to a military invasion by the North.

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