North Korea has sent soldiers to empty guard posts inside the heavily fortified Demilitarised Zone amid escalating tensions with the South, it is reported.
It comes after Kim Jong-un’s regime blew up a de facto embassy, threatened military action and warned it would sent troops into the DMZ that divides the two countries, who technically are still at war.
Tensions have rapidly escalated this month after Pyongyang warned the South it would respond if defectors went ahead with a campaign to send propaganda leaflets into the North.
North Korean soldiers were seen at empty guard posts inside the buffer zone from late Wednesday night, sources told South Korea’s Yonhap News Agency.
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A photo published by the website NK News showed a North Korean guard post near the border, as seen from the South Korean city of Paju.
South Koreans living just across the border in Paju told the website they were mostly indifferent about the current situation and life was carrying on as normal.
The Kim regime had warned it would set up “civil police posts” inside the DMZ, almost two years after troops were withdrawn in a new military pact with Seoul.
It is believed North Korea has about 150 posts along the heavily guarded border.
An official from South Korea’s Joint Chiefs of Staff (JCS) said the military was “closely monitoring” the North Korean troops’ movements and in a “full readiness posture”.
The JCS warned the North would “pay the price” if it launches an attack.
About 100 North Korean soldiers were seen at a shuttered industrial complex that was home to an inter-Korea liaison office that was blown up by Pyongyang on Tuesday, Yonhap reported.
The office was a de facto embassy aimed at fostering better ties between the old rivals. Officials from both sides occupied the building and would regularly meet to discuss issues.
The Kim regime has also threatened to send soldiers to the Mount Kumgang tourist region near the north-eastern border.
Meanwhile, defectors who have angered Kim were pressing ahead with plans to send aid packages into the North.
On Thursday, a defector-led group prepared hundreds of plastic bottles stuffed with rice which they plan to float across the borer despite a legal challenge from South Korean authorities and threats from Pyongyang.
Denouncing defectors as “mongrel dogs” and “human scum”, North Korea says their activities are an insult to the dignity of the country’s supreme leader.
South Korea is keen to improve relations with North Korea, and last week the government announced it would pursue legal actions against two defector-led groups, saying their cross-border shipments of aid and propaganda were raising tensions with North Korea, posing risks to South Koreans who live on the border, and causing environmental damage.
Still, one group is planning to send hundreds of bottles stuffed with rice, medicine and medical face masks to North Korea by throwing them into the sea near the border on Sunday, said Park Jung-oh, 61, a North Korean defector who heads the group, called Kuensaem.
“We do this as humanitarian aid amongst those who share the same values, so whatever North Korea says, we will continue to help those in hard situations, the elderly and the victims,” he said.
Gathered at a small park in Seoul, the group filled dozens of two litre bottles with up to 1.5kg of rice each, sending up to 700kg of rice in total, Park said.
Kuensaem has been sending goods to the North twice a month for the past five years. Sunday will mark their 108th time, Park said.
South Korean authorities have occasionally moved to stop such operations, including in 2018 during a series of summits between South Korean President Moon Jae-in and North Korea’s leader.
As he unloaded rice and bottles from his truck, Park said: “I don’t know why the Unification Ministry is nitpicking at us all of a sudden. The (South Korean) government – the Gangwha police, maritime police and the military – all knew about us.
He said he had not been contacted by any South Korean authorities since they announced they would pursue legal action.
Several defector-led groups regularly send flyers over the border, together with food, $1 bills, mini radios and USB sticks containing South Korean dramas and news. Most use balloons or bottles in rivers.
The two Koreas traded fire in 2014 after the North’s military fired machine guns at balloons launched by defector activists.
South Korea’s chief nuclear negotiator will hold talks with officials in Washington on Thursday amid flaring tensions n.
Lee Do-hoon’s unannounced trip came days after North Korea blew up the joint liaison office in Kaesong, near the South Korean border and declared an end to dialogue with the South.
Lee is expected to hold consultations with US officials, including Deputy Secretary of State Stephen Biegun who had led denuclearisation negotiations with North Korea, Seoul’s foreign ministry said.
Lee and Biegun will “assess the current situation on the Korean peninsula and discuss responses,” the ministry said in a statement.
North Korean leader Kim Jong-un’s, Kim Yo-jong, on Wednesday criticised South Korea’s president for failing to implement a 2018 peace accord, saying Moon “put his neck into the noose of pro-US flunkeyism.”
The Rodong Sinmun, the official newspaper of the North’s ruling Workers’ Party, said the demolition of the liaison office was the “first stage action” in its “holy war” aimed at punishing Seoul authorities for turning a blind eye to the defector’s campaign.
“It was an iron hammer of stern punishment meted out to those who were having empty dreams while pursuing concealed hostile policy,” it said in a commentary.
The newspaper also ran a series of articles and photos carrying angry ordinary citizens calling for retaliation and vowing to send anti-South leaflets over the border.