South Korea bolsters border force as tensions rise over nuclear test

A land mine warning hangs from barbed wire at the DMZ near the Third Tunnel of Aggression in South Korea in this April 2015 photo. (C.J. Lin/Stars and Stripes)
A land mine warning hangs from barbed wire at the DMZ near the Third Tunnel of Aggression in South Korea in this April 2015 photo. (C.J. Lin/Stars and Stripes)

South Korea bolsters border force as tensions rise over nuclear test

by: Sam Kim | .
Bloomberg | .
published: January 09, 2016

SEOUL, South Korea — South Korea reinforced defenses along its heavily fortified border after starting propaganda broadcasts aimed at destabilizing Kim Jong Un's regime, as it sought to punish North Korea for conducting its fourth nuclear test this week.

South Korea strengthened its positions near the loudspeakers that stretch along thee demilitarized zone, while North Korea stepped up surveillance on its side, as tensions rose in the wake of Wednesday's nuclear test. The propaganda blasts that brought the reclusive regime to a war footing in August — and then to the negotiating table — resumed at noon on the birthday of North Korean leader.

The broadcasts are seen as a threat to the morale of front- line troops and civilians by offering a glimpse of the contrasting economic and social realities between the two countries. North Korea threatened to attack the South in August, when Seoul resumed the broadcasts for the first time in a decade after two soldiers were injured by suspected land mines.

The broadcasts "may bring the Korean peninsula back to the pre-war atmosphere in August," said Cheong Seong-chang, a senior researcher at the Sejong Institute near Seoul.

The August bursts were a mix of popular music known as K- pop, recordings of casual conversations and discussions about the importance of human rights and the lives of South Korea's middle class, according to the defense ministry in Seoul.

British Foreign Secretary Philip Hammond, on a visit to Japan, echoed concerns that the broadcasts could cause the situation to escalate.

"We have to be bigger than the North Koreans and urge South Korea and other like-minded countries in the region to exercise restraint," Hammond told reporters in the port city of Yokosuka, near Tokyo. "We know that responding in this way is rising to the bait."

South Korean defense stocks rose Friday. Speco Co., which makes military products, rose 11 percent, after jumping by a record 24 percent; and Firstec Co., a weapons maker, climbed 3.3 percent after a 17 percent surge. This compares with a 0.7 percent rise in the benchmark Kospi index.

The death last month of North Korea's top negotiator with its southern neighbor may also leave a vacuum in Pyongyang's leadership over cross-border dealings. Kim Yang Gon, who died in a traffic accident, helped craft an agreement to defuse the August tensions in marathon talks at a border village.

"Perhaps someone in the South Korean government is being creative and hopes that, in playing K-pop and airing messages about the Pyongyang leadership, it will induce the North to engage the South in interactions, which might include a discussion about the nuclear program," said Michael Madden, editor of the North Korea Leadership Watch blog. "But that is a bit of a leap."

Diplomatic efforts to defuse the situation continued Friday. South Korea's envoy to the stalled six-nation negotiations on North Korea's nuclear disarmament spoke with his Chinese counterpart, with the two nations' foreign ministers scheduled to talk later.

China, which provides an economic lifeline to North Korea, is facing pressure to use its leverage to get Kim's regime to return to disarmament talks that collapsed in 2009. As United Nations diplomats work toward a new Security Council resolution on North Korea, and possible additional sanctions, U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry urged China to support a more aggressive approach to Kim's regime.

"China had a particular approach that it wanted to make and we agreed and respected to give them the space to be able to implement that," Kerry told reporters on Thursday. "But today in my conversation with the Chinese I made it very clear, that has not worked and we cannot continue business as usual."

Asked about Kerry's remarks, Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Hua Chunying said Friday that China was "not the cause and crux of the Korean nuclear issue, nor is it the key to resolving the problem." Hua said North Korea should honor its commitment to denuclearization and other parties must "keep a cool head" and not raise tensions.

Isabel Reynolds and Heejin Kim contributed.

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