By Chico Harlan
Washington Post Foreign Service
Friday, October 29, 2010; 10:49 AM
TOKYO - North Korean troops fired shots Friday in the direction of a South Korean military unit across the heavily armed border, prompting return fire, a South Korean military official said.
The clash took place along the demilitarized zone that separates the countries, in remote Gangwon province, northeast of Seoul. No injuries were immediately reported.
The intentions of North's shots, fired at South Korean troops stationed at a guard post, remain unknown. But the incident could widen the wedge between neighbors, who have tried in recent months - with notable hurdles - to ease hostile relations.
The gunshots came just hours after Pyongyang threatened to retaliate for Seoul's refusal to hold military-level talks, calling the rejection an "act of treachery," and two weeks before Seoul is set to hold the G-20 summit, a meeting of leaders of the world's 20 largest economies.
The incident appeared to be the first on-land exchange of gunfire since August 2007. But North Korea fired roughly 100 rounds of artillery into the sea off its west coast this summer, a response by U.S.-South Korea joint military exercises. And the Korean navies clashed in a larger skirmish in late 2009.
"It's hard to say what caused this," Dan Pinkston, a Seoul-based expert at the International Crisis Group, said of Friday's gunfire. "It could be a premeditated thing after the South turned down the offer for [military talks]. It could just be, you're out there along the DMZ, there's obscene gestures, there's taunting. You're isolated. So, okay, let's squeeze off a couple rounds."
North and South Korea have provoked one another for decades, firing across the demilitarized zone, capturing fishing boats, performing nuclear tests, holding military drills. But this latest skirmish provided a jolt of discord on the eve of a reunion for some 100 families separated since the Korean War.
Marking a relative high-point for recent inter-Korean cooperation, the North and South agreed earlier this month to resume the reunion program, which had been dormant for a year. But for now, it remains a one-time event - insufficient for the estimated 80,000 South Koreans awaiting contact with their relatives in the reclusive North.
Earlier this week, attempts to expand the reunion program foundered after Pyongyang demanded 500,000 tons of rice and 300,000 tons of fertilizer in exchange for regular gatherings. The South's Red Cross representatives didn't agree to the terms, and talks broke down.
But there was no indication that Saturday's reunion program, to be held at a mountain resort in the North, would be canceled.
According to South Korea's Yonhap news agency, a team from the United Nations Command - which oversees the Korean armistice agreement, in place since 1953 - will investigate Friday's gunfire to determine whether the North Korea's military violated terms of the agreement.
Despite recent, improved relations, helped by South Korean President Lee Myung Bak's decision to resume small-scale food aid to the North, the sides remain far from a diplomatic breakthrough.
South Korea, like the United States, has expressed little appetite for the resumption of six-party talks, the process aimed to persuade Pyongyang's denuclearization.
The two Koreas remain at odds over the March sinking of the Cheonan warship, which killed 46 sailors. Though a multi-nation investigation blames North Korea, Pyongyang has denied any involvement.