- The Washington Times - Sunday, May 3, 2020

North and South Korean military forces traded gunfire Sunday in what U.S. officials believe started with an “accidental” shot from the northern side of the border, increasing tensions between the two nations just as reclusive North Korean leader Kim Jong-un emerged from a mysterious three-week absence from the world stage.

South Korean military leaders said the brief exchange began after North Korean forces fired several shots at a guard post across the Demilitarized Zone separating the two nations. South Korean troops then fired 20 rounds of warning shots before issuing a warning broadcast, officials in Seoul said.

While no one was injured, the incident cast a spotlight on the delicate situation along the border and served as a warning of how any miscalculation along the DMZ can quickly turn violent.

Trump administration officials say they believe the gunfire began with an accidental shot fired by North Korean forces. There were reports of heavy fog in the area at the time of the exchange, possibly contributing to the brief exchange.

“A handful of shots that came across from the north — we think those are accidental,” Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said Sunday ABC’s “This Week.” “South Koreans did return fire. So far as we can tell, there was no loss of life on either side.”

Sunday marked the first time the nations, which technically are still at war, fired on one another since November 2017, when North Korean forces shot at a defector fleeing across the border.

The latest incident came just a day after Mr. Kim reappeared in public after a nearly three-week absence that fueled speculation he was gravely ill or perhaps had died. His failure to appear at key public events, including an April 15 ceremony honoring the birthday of his late grandfather, Kim Il-sung, raised questions about whether the 36-year-old Mr. Kim had contracted COVID-19 or had undergone surgery for another health issue.

But North Korean media over the weekend showed images of Mr. Kim attending a ceremony to mark the completion of a fertilizer factory near Pyongyang, and U.S. officials later concluded that those images appeared to be genuine.

“It looks like Chairman Kim is alive and well,” Mr. Pompeo said.

President Trump, who has met with Mr. Kim several times amid his administration’s ongoing push for a denuclearization deal on the Korean Peninsula, shared the North Korean photos on his Twitter feed Saturday.

“I, for one, am glad to see he is back, and well!” Mr. Trump tweeted.

Earlier last week, Mr. Trump suggested to reporters that he knew the reasons for Mr. Kim’s sudden disappearance, though he offered no details.

“I do have a very good idea, but I can’t talk about it now,” Mr. Trump said. “I hope he’s fine. I do know how he’s doing, relatively speaking. We will see. You’ll probably be hearing in the not-too-distant future.”

Denuclearization talks between Washington and Pyongyang broke down early last year during a meeting between Mr. Trump and Mr. Kim in Vietnam, after both sides seemingly had made progress on an agreement earlier.

Pyongyang insisted that the U.S. begin lifting sanctions before North Korea would begin to dismantle its nuclear program; the White House stood firm that economic relief would come only after verifiable steps toward denuclearization.

North Korea earlier this year conducted several provocative missile tests, though they garnered relatively little attention as the U.S. and other world governments focused on the coronavirus pandemic.

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