SEOUL – North and South Korea exchanged gunfire near one of the South’s guard post inside the Demilitarized Zone separating the two countries, the South Korean military said Sunday.
The incident began when North Korean soldiers fired at the guard post several times, South Korea’s Joint Chiefs of Staff said in a statement, adding that its soldiers shot back twice.
No casualties or equipment damage was reported in the statement, and the guard post was not hit, a South Korean Defense Ministry official said, speaking on the condition of anonymity to discuss sensitive matters.
Describing a “handful of shots that came across from the North,” U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said that “we think those are accidental.”
“South Koreans did return fire. So far as we can tell, there was no loss of life on either side,” Pompeo said Sunday on ABC’s “This Week.”
The shooting came a day after North Korea broadcast footage of leader Kim Jong Un’s first public appearance in about three weeks. His absence from public eye prompted unconfirmed news reports about his health and even rumors of his death.
On Sunday, an official from South Korea’s presidential Blue House told journalists that the government did not believe that Kim had undergone any kind of medical procedure, as had been rumored.
“Our view is that there was no surgery,” the official said, adding that there was evidence for this but declining to share it.
Pompeo said “there’s not much that I can share” about what the United States knew about Kim’s activities during his absence. “We know there have been other extended periods of time where Chairman Kim’s been out of public view as well, so it’s not unprecedented.”
But from the images shown on North Korean television, “it looks like Chairman Kim is alive and well,” he said.
Asked if Kim had ever been gravely ill, and if he could “rule out” coronavirus infection or a heart problem, Pompeo said, “I just can’t say anything about that.”
South Korea’s military said it was contacting its North Korean counterpart via a hotline to figure out what had happened and prevent further escalations. It did not repeat Pompeo’s statement that the exchange was “accidental.”
The Demilitarized Zone was originally established as a buffer zone between the two Koreas as a result of an armistice that halted the Korean War in 1953. Despite its name, the DMZ contains barbed-wire fences and land mines as well as combat-ready troops, making it one of the most one of the most heavily guarded frontiers in the world.
In late 2018, South and North Korea started dismantling the front-line guard posts as relations between the two countries warmed. But such efforts to reduce military tensions have stalled as negotiations to denuclearize North Korea broke down amid disagreements over ending U.S. sanctions aimed at curbing the North’s development of nuclear weapons.
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DeYoung reported from Washington.