‘Simple Mistake’: South Korea Fires at North Korean Soldiers Crossing Border

Barricades are placed near the Unification Bridge, which leads to the Panmunjom in the Dem
Ahn Young-joon/AP

The government of South Korea confirmed on Tuesday that between 20 and 30 North Korean soldiers crossed the inter-Korean border, violating the sovereignty of the country.

The leadership of the South Korean military, the Joint Chiefs of Staff (JCS), confirmed that South Korean soldiers fired at the Northern soldiers, prompting them to rapidly return to their country. The incident reportedly occurred on Sunday.

JCS spokesmen appeared to dismiss the illegal entry into the country as an error and told reporters that the North Korean soldiers in question were not all armed and were navigating in an area where the exact location of the border, formally known as the Military Demarcation Line (MDL), is difficult to delineate due to plant growth. The JCS revealed the exchange during a time of heightened tensions between the two Koreas, however, as communist North Korea launched a campaign in May to flood the Southern border areas with balloons full of trash and feces.

South Korea balloon

Balloons with trash presumably sent from North Korea to South Korea on May 29, 2024. (Jeonbuk Fire Headquarters via AP, South Korea Presidential Office via AP)

In response, the South Korean government began broadcasting anti-communist messages via a loudspeaker on the border, a policy that it had stopped for six years following agreements made during the term of American President Donald Trump, who prioritized reducing tensions with Pyongyang. Kim Yo-jong, a top North Korean official and the sister of dictator Kim Jong-un, vowed ceaseless trash balloon campaigns indefinitely in response to the loudspeakers.

Yasin Demirci/Anadolu via Getty Images

The soldiers reportedly crossed the border hours before the South Korean loudspeaker broadcast.

“Some North Korean soldiers working within the demilitarized zone (DMZ) on the central front crossed the MDL at 12:30 p.m. on Sunday, and headed north after our military’s issued a warning broadcast and fired warning shots,” the JCS explained on Tuesday, according to the South Korean newspaper Korea JoongAng Daily. “Our military is closely monitoring the movements of the North Korean troops and taking necessary measures in accordance with operational procedures.”

JoongAng, citing South Korean officials, described the incursion as “accidental.”

“They were moving through bushes where there was no path, and we were observing them even before they approached the MDL,” South Korean Col. Lee Sung-jun reportedly said in a briefing on Tuesday, describing the illegal crossing as a “simple mistake.”

Lee described the group of North Korean soldiers as totaling between 20 and 30, and said not all of them were armed, suggesting that they were not prepared for any belligerent mission. “Most carried work tools such as pickaxes,” JoongAng reported.

“It is presumed that the North Korean soldiers, who were working with tools, lost their way and crossed the MDL,” the JCS said.

The North Korean government has not, at press time, issued any specific statement on the shots fired at the border through its official state media outlets, the only legal media in the country. The most recent missive from Kim Yo-jong, who appears to be in charge of the trash balloon campaign, focused on condemning the South Korean loudspeaker broadcast. Kim also condemned anti-communist propaganda leaflets that individual groups in South Korea traditionally send across the border, explaining that the trash balloons were meant as a response to those leaflets.

“Our reaction was scheduled to end on June 9, but the situation has changed,” Kim wrote in a statement published by the state-run Korean Central News Agency (KCNA). “The loudspeaker broadcasting provocation started in the border area at last. This is a prelude to a very dangerous situation.”

“We strongly denounce the despicable and childish behavior of the ROK and clarify our stand responding to it,” she concluded. “The ROK will suffer a bitter embarrassment of picking up waste paper without rest and it will be its daily work.”

Kim Yo Jong, sister of North Korea's leader Kim Jong Un, attends wreath laying ceremony at Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum in Hanoi, March 2, 2019. (Photo by JORGE SILVA / POOL / AFP) (Photo credit should read JORGE SILVA/AFP via Getty Images)

Kim Yo-jong (JORGE SILVA/AFP via Getty Images)

“ROK” is short for the Republic of Korea, the official name of South Korea (North Korea is officially the “Democratic People’s Republic of Korea”). For decades, North Korean state media only referred to South Korea as “south [sic] Korea,” addressing the government in Seoul as an illegitimate separatist entity inside what it rightfully considered to be a unified communist Korea. In January, Kim Jong-un eliminated that precedent, declaring the ROK an enemy state

“The ROK scums are our principal enemy,” Kim Jong-un said in January. “While we will not unilaterally decide on a major upheaval in the Korean peninsula through the overwhelming force of ours, we also have no intention of avoiding war.”

North Korea's leader Kim Jong Un listens to US President Donald Trump (not pictured) during a meeting at the Sofitel Legend Metropole hotel in Hanoi on February 27, 2019. (Photo by Saul LOEB / AFP) (Photo credit should read SAUL LOEB/AFP/Getty Images)

Kim Jong-un (SAUL LOEB/AFP/Getty Images)

The offending broadcast on Sunday from South Korea was a two-hour program titled “Voice of Freedom,” containing information about the success of South Korean corporations, political information from around the world banned in North Korea, and pop culture items such as songs by the Korean pop (K-pop) band BTS, whose members are all currently serving in the South Korean military.

In response, between Sunday night and Monday morning, North Korea flew more than 310 balloons across the border, again carrying garbage. Some landed in Seoul, including close to historic landmarks, such as the National Museum of Korea. North Korea has launched more than 1,600 balloons at the South since May.

South Korean military officials also reported that they have observed the installation of loudspeakers pointing south on the inter-Korean border, suggesting communist broadcasts may occur in the near future.

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