Military forces of North and South Korea exchanged fire across the 4 kilometer (2.5 mile)-wide Korean Demilitarized Zone on Thursday afternoon. The incident was a North Korean provocation resulting from a recent chain of events involving a landmine explosion in the DMZ – which the South blames on the North – and the resumption of propaganda broadcasts by loudspeaker at the DMZ, first by the South and the by the North. Though the incident itself is a symptom of high tensions between the two Koreas and shows how easily military exchanges can occur, the outcome shows it is possible to effectively handle such an incident without wider conflict and that neither side desires a resumption of open warfare.
The KPA first fired one 14.5 mm round toward loudspeakers in the DMZ in South Korea’s Yeoncheon County, Gyeonggi Province, at 3:52 p.m. KST. They followed this by firing three 76.2 mm rounds at 4:12 p.m. This second volley was fired toward South Korean forces of the 28th Infantry Division and fell about 700 meters south of the Military Demarcation Line (MDL) in a mountainous area near the middle of Yeoncheon County. The Republic of Korea (South Korea) Army measured the ballistic trajectory of the rounds to determine the probable origin and returned fire with 29 shells at a location about 500 meters north of the MDL at 5:04 p.m., more than one hour after the initial firing by North Korea.
As a precaution, South Korea evacuated the villages of Hwangsan-li and Sanmgot-li in Yeoncheon County, minimizing the risk of civilian casualties if the event had escalated and resulted in further exchange of fire. South Korea also raised its military alertness level to Jindogae-1. This indicates immediate danger, imminent attack or impending invasion.
The North Korean gunfire came from an area under the 2nd Corps of the Korean People’s Army. The most recently known commander of this corps (as of July 2014) is Lieutenant General Kim Sang Ryong. The ROKA 28th Infantry Division is the South Korean unit responsible for Yeoncheon County, the area fired upon by the North, with the unit itself seemingly the target of the second volley. The division is subordinate to the ROKA VI (6th) Corps.
WEAPONRY & ROUNDS FIRED
Most early reports described the first round fired by the North as possibly being a small rocket. But later multiplesources consistently described it as a 14.5 mm anti-aircraft machine gun (AAMG), citing the South Korean military. This would likely be either a ZPU-2 or ZPU-4. The ZPU series AAMG is a large-caliber machine gun originally designed as anti-aircraft artillery, though also commonly used for ground warfare as well.
The second volley of three rounds was fired from a 76.2 mm gun, likely a ZIS-3 or a North Korean-produced derivative thereof. This is a direct fire gun, meaning it is fired at a target for which the gunners have direct line-of-sight. It is primarily used as an anti-tank weapon. This weapon is relatively small compared to most modern artillery. Even most standard infantry mortars are larger (North Korea’s primary infantry mortar has a caliber of 82 mm while South Korea and the United States use an 81 mm mortar).
The ROKA 28th Infantry Division returned fire to the North with 155 mm artillery, possibly the self-propelled K9 Thunder, but also possibly the K55 (a derivative of the U.S.-made M109) or the towed KH179. Though both the choice of weapon caliber and the number of rounds may appear to be South Korea upping the ante on the North, the decision was likely both a matter of availability and a means to counter North Korea with a meaningful impact by dealing more significant damage. Military units along the DMZ- on both sides- should routinely keep artillery batteries on standby to return fire at enemy positions in the event of a provocation. While the side conducting a provocation (i.e. the North) can easily choose which type of weapon to use for the intended purpose, it is in the interest of the responding side to use the unit and weapons most readily available.
SOUTH KOREAN RESPONSE
The KPA fired at 3:52 and again at 4:12, but South Korea only returned fire at about 5 p.m. It is unknown exactly why it took about an hour for South Korea to respond with counter-battery fire, though a few possibilities are likely. It may have been that the South Korean military unit took some caution and waited for approval from a higher echelon.
… it should not take nearly an hour to conduct this analysis, relay coordinates to the artillery and return fire
It is known that the ROK military used a counter-battery radar – a radar which detects a projectile and traces its ballistic trajectory to find the probable location of origin – to determine where to fire. However, it should not take nearly an hour to conduct this analysis, relay coordinates to the artillery and return fire. If this is typical of South Korean response time, they will need to improve to be able to effectively return fire in a larger conflict, as it is easily possible for the North Korean artillery unit who fired the rounds to have relocated by the time the South responded.
This, however, may itself be the reason for the delay. Perhaps in an effort to avoid escalation, the South Korean may have consciously decided to fire on the suspected position of the North’s artillery, but long enough afterward for the Northern artillery to have safely moved away. This would demonstrate the South’s ability to find and target the North’s artillery without actually inflicting casualties this time. Only the North Korean’s would know whether this strategy would effectively deter them or not.
LANDMINES & PROPAGANDA BROADCASTS
The chain of events leading to Thursday’s fire exchange began with mine explosion in the DMZ on August 4 which injured to ROK soldiers and which Seoul claims was intentionally caused by North Korea. Though many areas of the DMZ have active minefields, the location at which the explosion occurred on August 4 was not one of them. The explosion occurred at a gate within the southern side of the DMZ used by ROK military troops on patrol. South Korea has claimed that soldiers from the North infiltrated the area and intentionally planted the mine as a booby trap. The North has denied responsibility and claims the mine was likely moved from its original location by water. This is something that happens frequently due to heavy rains, especially in the summer monsoon season.
South Korea resumed propaganda broadcasts toward the North on August 10 as a response to the landmine incident. On August 17, North Korea denounced South Korea’s decision to resume propaganda broadcasts, yet also announced it would resume its own such broadcasts. Both the North and the South can use their own loudspeakers to drown out the sound of the opposite side’s broadcasts and prevent them from being audible.
… the North seeks to raise the specter of fear without actually engaging in a large-scale attack
Thursday’s provocation by North Korea was a direct response to South Korea’s resumption of propaganda broadcasts. Not only did the initial round fired apparently target a loudspeaker installation, but North Korea reportedly threatened further action if the South does not cease the propaganda broadcasts within the next 48 hours. North Korea could have easily used larger artillery and fired more effectively to destroy the loudspeakers if that were truly intention. The fact that they used relatively low caliber weaponry targeting a military unit for most of the firing, and followed with the 48-hour warning shows that the North seeks to raise the specter of fear without actually engaging in a large-scale attack. The North likely hopes that South Korea will conclude that maintaining the propaganda broadcasts is not worth the risk of another provocation. It is unlikely, though, that Seoul will give in to such demands.
A likely additional factor in North Korea’s decision to make this provocation is the joint ROK-U.S. Ulchi-Freedom Guardian (UFG) military exercise currently underway. The exercise, which is held annually, began on August 17. South Korea and the U.S. describe this and other exercises as defensive in nature, but North Korea routinely criticizes them as rehearsals for an invasion of North and considers them provocative. It is not uncommon for tensions on the peninsula to rise during such exercises.
PROVOCATION & ESCALATION
Any exchange of fire or provocation involving direct military contact between the two Koreas has the potential for escalation into a wider conflict, whether or not this is the intended outcome (which it rarely is). The risk of escalation is higher at the DMZ than it is at sea or on and around the various islands near the Northern Limit Line, the de facto inter-Korean maritime border in the Yellow Sea, where military skirmishes have been more frequent. At sea and on islands, military forces are relatively isolated from the opposing forces and other units from their own side. They have little direct contact with the enemy and can not necessarily expect quick reinforcement or fire support from allied forces.
By contrast, units at the DMZ are often in visual contact with both allies and enemies. Each side maintains a more-or-less unbroken chain of guard posts and other positions within visual range of one another. In addition, the concentration of forces on the DMZ on both sides is relatively high as are tensions and alertness. This means that an incident could inadvertently result in a chain reaction of units providing supporting fire to adjacent units, until fighting has broken out along much of the border.
Though the North may occasionally engage in military provocation and the South is willing to respond in kind, neither side wants an open conflict. The fact that this incident initially resulted in only controlled return fire by the South and no further military action by either side demonstrates the ability and desire of both sides to limit escalation. Both sides appear to have intentionally fired at such times and/or locations to provoke the opposing side but not actually inflict casualties. Avoiding escalation of an incident into open conflict requires strict discipline, strong command and control, and clear rules of engagement in the military forces on both sides.
Featured image: Korean Central News Agency
Military forces of North and South Korea exchanged fire across the 4 kilometer (2.5 mile)-wide Korean Demilitarized Zone on Thursday afternoon. The incident was a North Korean provocation resulting from a recent chain of events involving a landmine explosion in the DMZ – which the South blames on the North – and the resumption of propaganda broadcasts by loudspeaker at the DMZ, first by the
John G. Grisafi is an analyst and Korean linguist from Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. Having previously worked as an analyst for the United States Army in South Korea and studied Korean at the Defense Language Institute, he is now majoring in East Asian Languages & Civilization and History at the University of Pennsylvania.