Warning shots fired at border between two Koreas


SEOUL – The rival Koreas traded blame yesterday for a brief military exchange at a tense maritime border as the United States urged Pyongyang to get back to the main business of denuclearisation talks.

North Korea hit out against its neighbour’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, but the defence ministry rejected the North’s construction blasts assertion. It believes the North was conducting military drills.

The dispute occurred barely a fortnight after the two Koreas’ nuclear envoys met for the first time in over two years. A week later, a leading North Korean diplomat travelled 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 stalled six-party talks which offer North Korea aid and diplomatic recognition in return for it disabling its nuclear weapons programme.

The US said the dispute 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 denuclearisation,” state department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland told reporters in Washington.

The talks also involve 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 Wednesday’s blasts emanated from a construction site in South Hwanghae Province.

“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 tragi-comedy 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.”

The South’s 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 worthy of a response.

Even with the flurry of diplomacy, the incident underscored the fact that tensions still run high after last year’s attacks in the same area.

Fifty South Koreans were killed last year in two attacks near the Northern Limit Line, drawn up unilaterally by the US at the end of the 1950-1953 Korean war.

Seoul has since ramped up its military presence around the line, and vowed to hit back hard with air power and bombs against a North Korean attack after the military’s response was criticised for being weak last year. – (Reuters)