SEOUL, South Korea (AP) — North Korea fired about 130 artillery shells Monday into water near its western and eastern maritime borders with South Korea, the latest military action helping to sour relations between neighbors.
North Korea’s military said the firing was a warning against ongoing South Korean artillery drills near the inland border town of Cheorwon and accused the South of escalating tensions.
South Korean Joint Chiefs of Staff said the North Korean weapons, fired Monday afternoon from the western and eastern coastal areas of North Korea, were in the northern part of the buffer zones created in the part of a 2018 inter-Korean agreement to reduce military tensions. There were no immediate reports of shells falling in South Korean territorial waters.
South Korea’s military said it issued a verbal warning to North Korea about the firing and urged it to abide by the agreement. The South Korean and U.S. militaries were closely monitoring North Korea’s military activities while strengthening their preparedness to respond to any “potential contingencies”, the Joint Chiefs of Staff said in a statement.
The South Korean military is conducting live-fire drills involving multiple rocket launchers and howitzers from Monday to Wednesday at two separate proving grounds in the Cherowon area.
The North Korean firings also came days after Washington, Seoul and Tokyo announced largely symbolic sanctions against certain North Korean individuals and institutions accused of illicit activities to finance nuclear weapons programs and country’s missiles.
In a statement carried by state media, an unidentified spokesman for the North Korean People’s Army General Staff said North Korea had ordered its western and eastern coastal units to fire artillery as a warning after detecting dozens of South Korean projectiles flying southeast of the Cheorwon area.
“We sternly warn the enemy side to be careful, not to ignite the flame of unnecessary escalation of tension in the area around the front,” the spokesperson said.
It was the first time North Korea had fired weapons into the maritime buffer zones since November 3, when around 80 artillery shells landed on the North Korean side of the zone off its eastern coast.
North Korea fired dozens of missiles as it ramped up its weapons demonstrations at a record pace this year, including several tests of an intercontinental ballistic missile system potentially capable of reaching deep into the continental United States and a intermediate-range missile launched over Japan.
North Korea also carried out a series of short-range launches it described as mock nuclear attacks on South Korean and American targets in an angry reaction to an expansion of joint American-South Korean military exercises that the North Korea considers rehearsals for a potential invasion.
Experts say North Korea hopes to negotiate economic and security concessions from a position of strength and force the United States to accept it as a nuclear power. South Korean officials have said North Korea could soon up the ante by conducting its first nuclear test since 2017.
North Korean state media said last week that leader Kim Jong Un had called for a major political conference before the end of the year in which he was expected to address increasingly strained relations with Washington and Seoul on the expansion of North Korea’s nuclear and missile programs.
The inter-Korean military agreement that established the buffer zones is one of the few tangible remnants of the countries’ short-lived diplomacy in 2018. Former South Korean President Moon Jae-in met with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un in three times that year while helping organize Kim’s first summit with former US President Donald Trump.
But inter-Korean negotiations never recovered from the breakdown of the second Kim-Trump meeting in February 2019, when the Americans rejected North Korean demands for a major easing of US-led sanctions in exchange for peace. a partial surrender of the North’s nuclear capabilities.