Tensions as South Korea shells North's rocket launch site
South Korea fired dozens of artillery rounds at the launch site of a North Korean rocket yesterday, escalating tensions on the already uneasy border between the two nations.
South Korean radar detected the launch of the projectile shortly before 4pm, according to Yonhap News.
The North Korean rocket was apparently aimed at a frontline military unit in Yeoncheon, 35 miles north-west of Seoul.
The North Korean weapon caused no damage or casualties, but the South responded immediately with "dozens of rounds of 155mm shells" aimed at the estimated launch site, the defence ministry said in a statement.
North Korea has demanded that the South halt propaganda broadcasts over the border into the North and threatened to attack loudspeakers.
Pyongyang has also warned of "indiscriminate strikes" against the South and threatened to turn the country into "a sea of fire" if activists do not stop sending propaganda leaflets over the border by balloon.
Seoul resumed its propaganda broadcasts across the Demilitarised Zone following an 11-year break after two soldiers carrying out a patrol on the South Korean side of the border were maimed by a landmine earlier this month.
Seoul has accused the North of planting the mine, but Pyongyang denies being involved.
Pyongyang reportedly fired initial shots at a loudspeaker on South Korea's side of the border, prompting retaliation with "dozens of shells" from South Korea.
Park Geun-hye, the South Korean president, called on Monday for the military to be ready for further provocations from the North.
"We need to maintain a strong military readiness to protect our people's lives and their properties from North Korea's provocations," Ms Park told a cabinet meeting.
South Korea has changed its rules of engagement on the border following the mine incident, with its troops no longer required to fire warning shots at any North Koreans crossing into the southern half of the 2.5-mile wide Demilitarised Zone.
Under the new regulations, South Korean troops are permitted to fire directly at any infiltrators they detect.
The two nations have clashed on the border several times in recent years, but it is the first time in nearly five years that the South has fired artillery rounds into the North.
In November 2010, North Korea shelled an island off the west coast of the peninsula, close to the disputed sea border, killing two South Korean soldiers.
The South responded by shelling the North's coastal gun emplacements.
Patrol vessels have also traded gunfire in the Yellow Sea on a number of occasions since then, while North Korean troops have attempted to shoot down propaganda balloons floated over the border by South Korean activists and defectors from the North.
"On the one hand, the North's actions signal its displeasure with the South over these broadcasts," said Daniel Pinkston, an analyst with the International Crisis Group in Seoul.
But there may well have been a secondary objective of the attack into the South.
"These sorts of centralised dictatorships have numerous internal tensions and it is logical for the regime to create external enemies", he said. "This serves to focus the attention of the military elsewhere and reduces the likelihood of a coup".
The danger behind South Korea's "robust response", Mr Pinkston suggested, is that the North's military might interpret the bombardment as a full-scale attack and "use all their assets before they lose them".
The question now is how North Korea will react next, he said.
"If, for internal reasons, they believe their objectives have been met, they can stand down," he said. "But if they feel there are more points they can make, then they can do that at a time and place of their choosing".
South Korean troops were placed on the highest level of alert after the exchange of shells yesterday, while more than 100 civilians living in and around Yeoncheon have been evacuated from their homes.
North Korea did not respond to the barrage into its territory, but later in the day announced that it is giving the South 48 hours to halt the propaganda broadcasts or it would initiate "military action".
(© Daily Telegraph, London)