SEOUL –– Tensions between North Korea and South Korea escalated yesterday after South Korea said an unidentified aircraft approached the demilitarized zone.
After issuing warning broadcasts, military forces from the South responded by firing warning shots with machine gun fire, an official with South Korea’s Ministry of Defence said. The unidentified North Korean aircraft “immediately went towards the North”, he said.
It was not immediately clear whether the drone was armed or what its mission was.
However, a former United States Army senior intelligence officer who served there suggested the purpose was either surveillance or instigation by North Korea.
“It’s very likely these were trying to figure out troop disposition,” said Retired Lieutenant Colonel Tony Shaffer. “The second thing they were trying to do was probably provocation.”
Shaffer warned that miscalculation by any of the forces arrayed on either side of the heavily fortified border, even at the individual level, could result in a larger expanded conflict, one that could endanger the thousands of American military personnel stationed there.
“This is no small issue,” he said.
Commander William Urban, Defence Department spokesman, said American forces along the DMZ were closely monitoring the situation.
“We are concerned that additional North Korean provocations could heighten tensions, lead to a cycle of escalation,” he said.
The incident came just days after South Korea began blaring music and propaganda from loudspeakers along the border in retaliation for a nuclear test conducted last week by the North.
“I think this is quite a dangerous situation,” said Bonnie Glaser of the Centre For Strategic And International Studies. “There could be firing by the North Koreans, which then could prompt South Koreans to retaliate very quickly,” she said. “There’s always a danger that things could escalate on the Korean Peninsula, lives being lost.”
In an additional provocation, South Korean soldiers yesterday found anti-South Korea and anti-America propaganda leaflets, believed to have been sent by North Korea between Tuesday and yesterday. The leaflets were found in Seoul, Uijeongbu, Dongducheon, Paju and other border cities, South Korea’s Ministry of Defence officials told CNN.
One of the things the coloured leaflets said was: “Let’s beat up Park Geun-hye’s clique like you would do to a mad dog.”
For her part, South Korea’s President Park Geun-hye said yesterday said she was working with the United States and the United Nations to develop “painful and effective sanction measures against North Korea” in response to the test.
In the United States, members of Congress held a hearing to review ways to press North Korea to dial back its nuclear ambitions, with proposals ranging from providing South Korea with terminal high altitude area defence missiles to pushing China to cut off North Korea’s access to Chinese banks.
But North Korean leader Kim Jong Un yesterday defended his nuclear programme, saying his country needed the capability to strike the United States if provoked.
At a ceremony in which he honoured the scientists who carried out last week’s controversial weapons test, Kim blamed the United States and its allies for “bringing dark clouds of a nuclear war” to the Korean Peninsula, according to his official website.
He called for increasing the quantity and quality of North Korea’s nuclear force, “capable of making nuclear strikes at the American-led imperialists any time and in any space”, the statement said, “if they encroach upon the sovereignty of North Korea and make threatening provocations”.
North Korea brought international condemnation on itself last week after claiming to have detonated a hydrogen bomb, although experts doubted the atomic test reached the thermonuclear level.