US Forces Korea vigilant as Korean talks stretch into third day
SEOUL, South Korea — With saber-rattling in full swing on both sides of the Demilitarized Zone, the two Koreas engaged in a third day of marathon talks Monday to defuse their latest crisis without looking weak at home.
With a steady escalation since two South Korean troops were wounded three weeks ago in land mine blasts blamed on North Korea, there were signs that Pyongyang was readying its forces for possible combat.
A spokesman for South Korea’s Ministry of National Defense said more than 50 of the North’s submarines, representing about 70 percent of its fleet, have left their bases. Their locations were not known. North Korea recently claimed it has developed the capability to launch submarine-based ballistic missiles, but U.S. officials claimed the supporting video appeared to have been faked.
South Korea’s Yonhap News reported that the North also has deployed special forces troops in about 10 amphibious landing craft to a naval base about 37 miles from the sea border and has doubled the number of artillery troops at the border. An MND spokesman said he could not confirm either report.
Citing unidentified sources, Yonhap also reported that the U.S. and South Korea are discussing whether to deploy U.S. B-52 bombers or nuclear-powered submarines to the peninsula in an additional display of might after they flew eight fighter jets across the peninsula in a show of force before the talks started Saturday.
"South Korea and the U.S. are flexibly reviewing the timing of the deployment of strategic U.S. military assets," MND spokesman Kim Min-seok told a news briefing Monday, according to Yonhap. He did not specify what assets the U.S. might send but said Seoul is emphasizing deterrence against North Korean aggression.
Shows of force are not uncommon during periods of extreme tension with the North. In 2013, as Pyongyang leveled a number of increasingly bellicose threats surrounding joint U.S.–South Korea military exercises in the spring, the U.S. sent two B-2 stealth bombers on a training mission to South Korea and positioned a guided-missile destroyer off the peninsula’s southwest coast.
The U.S. and South Korea are currently in the middle of their annual Ulchi Freedom Guardian computer command-and-control exercise. About 80,000 South Korean and U.S. troops are taking part in the war games, which end Friday. The allies took the unusual step of briefly halting the drill on Thursday following the exchange of artillery fire along the DMZ.
The North views military exercises as a threat, and, as happens during virtually every exercise period, has demanded a halt to UFG.
The U.S. military said Monday it is closely monitoring the tense stand-off.
In a posting on its Facebook page around 10 a.m., U.S. Forces Korea said it is “observing the ongoing high level inter-Korean talks and understand its impact on the future of the Korean peninsula.” But that appeared to back off a more optimistic posting two hours earlier: “We remain encouraged by the ongoing high level talks and the potential for positive inter-Korean relations.”
Both postings said personnel should stay in close contact with their units for the most accurate and timely information.
High-level officials from both Koreas began talks Saturday evening at the border village of Panmunjom and resumed them at 3:30 p.m. Sunday. They stretched through the night and were still going on Monday afternoon.
South Korea began broadcasting anti-Pyongyang messages across the border from loudspeakers after the land mine blasts along the DMZ injured two of its soldiers Aug. 4. A United Nations Command investigation said the North had planted the land mines along a known South Korean patrol route, which Pyongyang has denied.
The North retaliated by starting its own propaganda broadcasts, and last Thursday — following an unusual exchange of artillery fire along the DMZ — told Seoul to halt its broadcasts by 6 p.m. Saturday. The two Koreas announced a few hours before the deadline that they would hold talks.
On Monday, a spokeswoman for the presidential Blue House would not say what issues were being discussed. The Ministry of National Defense said the South has continued its cross-border broadcasts.
Yang Mu-jin, a professor of politics and unification studies at the University of North Korean Studies in Seoul, said the North is amassing its forces in an effort to strengthen its negotiating position in Panmunjom. While neither side appears ready to budge right now, the fact that the talks are continuing shows they’re worried. He predicted they would soften their positions to avoid war.
“They know things have reached a crisis point on the peninsula, and both of them want to solve the situation,” he said.
Kang Sung Kyu, a professor of North Korean studies at Korea University in Sejeong City, said the talks are dragging on because Seoul refuses to stop its loudspeaker broadcasts — the president has vowed to deal sternly with Pyongyang’s provocations — and North Korea won’t apologize for the land mine incident.
“Kim Jong Un won’t give an apology,” he said of the young and relatively inexperienced North Korean dictator, who has led the country since his father’s death in December 2011. “It would lead to a questioning of his power among North Koreans.
“He’s been in power for so little time that it’s hard to predict what he will do,” Kang said. “He seems to be immature and impulsive.”
A series of threats from the North over the past two decades has left many in South Korea almost unfazed by new standoffs, and life continued as normal in Seoul through the weekend and on Monday. In addition, The Associated Press reported little sign of a crisis in Panmunjom.
A South Korean Unification Ministry spokesperson, speaking on customary condition of anonymity, said Monday that operations were continuing as normal at the jointly run Kaesong Industrial Complex, with South Korean employees still able to cross the border to work there.
A provincial government official in Uijeongbu said the South Korean military had stopped civilian tours of the DMZ, though he could not provide further details.
Photo: In this photo provided by the South Korean Unification Ministry, South Korean National Security Director, Kim Kwan-jin, right, and Unification Minister Hong Yong-pyo, second from right, shake hands with Hwang Pyong So, left, North Korea' top political officer for the Korean People's Army, and Kim Yang Gon, a senior North Korean official responsible for South Korean affairs, during their meeting at the border village of Panmunjom in Paju, South Korea, Saturday, Aug. 22, 2015. South Korea and North Korea agreed Saturday to hold their first high-level talks in nearly a year at a border village to defuse mounting tensions that have pushed the rivals to the brink of a possible military confrontation.
The South Korean Unification Ministry via AP