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21.08.2015 Author: Konstantin Asmolov

On the Recent Explosion in the Demilitarized Zone and Aggravation of Inter-Korean Relations

5645645On August 4, 2015, an incident occurred to the south of the Demilitarized Zone (DMZ), which divides the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea and the South Korea along the 38th parallel.

According to the Yonhap News Agency, two South Korean soldiers sustained serious leg injuries during a routine patrol owing to an explosion, which occurred at 7:40 a.m. local (1:40 a.m. Moscow) time in the Incheon district, Gyeonggi province, near the city of Paju. A representative of the local military command told the agency that “there is no probability of involvement of the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea in the incident.” He also added that most probably the explosion had been triggered by an anti-personnel mine.

Speaker of the Ministry of National Defense (MND) Kim Min-seok expressed his regret about the incident and noted that, due to prompt action, the victims’ lives were no longer at risk. In addition, the report by Yonhap immediately noted that the territory where the incident occurred is ”littered” with mines, many of which had been planted back in the days of the1950-1953 Korean War. The maps of minefields do not really help identify the exact position of mines because over the years many of them have moved due to floods, wind and soil erosion.

It did not look anything other than just an ordinary incident, but as early, as August 7, high-ranking South Korean military commander, Jung Ho-sub, put his units on alert so that they could respond to further North Korean provocations and soon, the topic of North Korean provocations became the talk of the town.

Meanwhile, the injuries sustained by the military personnel during the incident turned out to be far more serious than had earlier been estimated. Both border guards lost their legs, meaning they will be officially disabled and will become eligible for life-long compensation.

In the end, the North Korean involvement was publicly announced on August 10. According to South Korean Brigadier General Ahn Young-Ho, who led the incident investigation commission, “it was discovered that it was an anti-personnel mine (there were three of them, to be exact), enclosed in one of the wooden boxes customarily used by the North Korean army,” “…the enemy has deliberately planted mines to inflict damage to the armed forces of the Republic of Korea,” as well as to impede the forthcoming joint military drills of the Republic of Korea and the US (Ulchi Freedom Guardian).

In the military officers’ opinion, the items found on the scene (fragments of a wooden box that had presumably contained the mine, three springs, and traces of the explosive substance, trotyl) prove the involvement of the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea in the explosion. And, since there was no corrosion or rust on the mine’s fragments, it was concluded that the mine had been installed just a short time ago, most probably at the end of July, when the area of the incident saw heavy rains and thick fog.

Somehow it was simultaneously “discovered” that there had been no mines in the area of the incident beforehand, which means that they were not old mines that had been planted there a long time ago, but new ones, planted by North Korean provocateurs. It turns out that fog was so dense in July that North Korean intelligence officers were presumably able to penetrate the territory of the Republic of Korea and plant those mines 440 meters from the border. Ahn Young-Ho pointed out that similar incidents occurred in the 1960s.

At this point a question arises, “What about the highly-praised South Korean robot-assisted border guard system?” It should be admitted, though, that the Demilitarized Zone is actually penetrable. At least two incidents have occurred recently, when North Korean defector-soldiers successfully passed all the border obstacles. In one of the cases, the soldier was only noticed after he had knocked on the doors of a South Korean checkpoint. That’s why it is rather difficult to tell whether North Korean commandos are so skillful, or whether South Korean border guards fail to carry out their duties properly. Moreover, when extending its apologies, the Ministry of National Defense (MND) admitted that the border guards did not have a mine detector, which is considered a neglect of duties.

It seems to the author that these two statements contradict each other in a suspicious way. On the one hand, representatives of the local command confirmed non-involvement of the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea in the incident. In this case, it would be reasonable to assume that this conclusion was drawn based on the materials of the initial inspection of the scene of the incident. But almost a week later new evidence surfaces, which, for some reason, had not been detected before. But if the remains of the mine’s outer casing and other parts had been found right away, then it appears to be somewhat strange that this version was not voiced immediately, especially if the mines of the two countries differ so much.

It is also important that the area of the incident has already attracted attention on several occasions. Back in 2010, after the incidents on the Yeonpyeong Island, at the peak of the flare up between the two Koreas, a cannon “accidentally” fired by itself. The shell did not reach the North Korean territory and for this reason, no mutual exchange of fire was initiated. And hard-to-explain incidents where each party blames the other of the “shelling of our territory” occasionally occur these days. Furthermore, “South Korean human rights activists” launch their air balloons filled with propaganda leaflets from this area.

But anyhow, an investigation undertaken by the command of UN troops (the investigation commission was comprised of representatives of the US, the Republic of Korea, New Zealand and Colombia) came to the same conclusions as their counterparts in South Korea, which qualified as a “go ahead” signal. The Chiefs of Staff of the joint committee of the armed forces of the Republic of Korea called the planting of the mines by North Korea in the DMZ a frank breach of ceasefire and conciliation agreements. The South demanded that the North acknowledge its responsibility for the incident and extend its apologies. The UN command decried the alleged actions of the North and summoned a meeting of the parties’ generals. “By having planted anti-personnel mines enclosed in wooden boxes along the patrol route of South Korean soldiers in the southern part of the DMZ, the North Korean army has violated paragraphs 6, 7 and 8 of the ceasefire agreement,” reads the statement.

Both the ruling party and the opposition decried the alleged actions of the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea. UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon called for the North to cease provocations and begin a dialogue. The Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs of Great Britain Phillip Hammondalso reviled the alleged actions of the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea. As for the President of the Republic of Korea (who would clearly never question the results of the investigation), she, on the one hand, showed the rigidity of her position, but, on the other, did not try to “burn bridges” as Lee Myung-bak had done before. “Our government will continue exerting pressure on North Korea expressed in a strict deterrence, but at the same time, we will continue to make efforts to resume the inter-Korean dialogue.”

On August 10, a decision to resume anti-North Korean propaganda broadcasts using loudspeakers installed along the border was adopted and the troops of the Republic of Korea stationed in the Demilitarization Zone were put on full combat alert. Defense Minister of the Republic of Korea, Han Min-koo, stated that it was just the beginning and that he was considering additional retaliatory measures. When asked whether there were plans to attack North Korean border outposts, located on the other side of the Demilitarized Zone, he replied that it had not yet been decided. According to some sources, the Republic of Korea even intended to conduct a counter strike, but America had disapproved of that.

As for the South Korean mass media, it has already identified the North Korean, who plotted the incident. They point fingers at General Kim Yong Chol, who has just recently been promoted again. Admittedly, he was promoted before the incident, but it was Gen. Kim, who had been accused of being behind the incident on the Yeonpyeong Island and the sinking of the South Korean corvette Cheonan. Southerners believe that he is in charge of military intelligence and that all provocations of this type are on his conscience.

In conclusion, the readers should be made aware of two more aspects of this situation (related to foreign policy). First, the incident occurred right before scheduled annual joint drills of the US and South Korean armies. Every year North Korea states that such drills are conducted in preparation for an invasion, and gets the same response from the southerners that it is strictly their sovereign business. The recent incident “knocks the bottom out of the North Korean allegations”: now everybody can see who the real provocateur is.

And in a broad sense, it should be noted that, having repelled an attack led by Park Geun-hye undertaken as part of the “fight against corruption” policy, the conservative forces of the Republic of Korea attempted a strike-back. That includes the appointment of a new Prime Minister, an attempt to limit the President’s authorities, which we addressed in one of the recent articles, and a whole range of controversial decrees issued by the Constitutional Court.

However, in the author’s opinion, both provocations (on the part of the northerners and on the part of the southerners) are more or less a “much ado about nothing,” because there is something else, more important, happening. Just consider this: at the same time as the news about the alleged involvement of North Korea went public, the two victims of the incident became disabled and eligible for life-long compensation. In this situation, regardless of what actually happened, southerners would more eagerly embrace North Korean provocation as the official, more socially acceptable, version of events than the violation of the safety rules (the soldiers did not have a mine detector).

And yes, it does have similarities with the escalation of the conflict ignited by the sinking of the corvette Cheonan five years ago, when it was decided that this dramatic event could be used to political ends. Although initially after the event North Korea was not among the suspects, later, highly dubious evidence (a suspiciously rusted torpedo) was “discovered.”

Konstantin Asmolov, PhD (History), senior researcher at the Institute of Oriental Studies of the Russian Academy of Sciences, exclusively for the online magazine “New Eastern Outlook”.

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