North Korean state media said Kim Jong Un’s regime is reviewing a plan to send its army into some areas of the demilitarized zone separating the country from South Korea.
The General Staff of the Korean People’s Army said it was on high alert, according to a report Tuesday on the official Korean Central News Agency, escalating its threats aimed at forcing South Korea to halt activists from sending anti-Pyongyang leaflets across the border by balloon.
“Our army is keeping a close watch on the current situation in which the north-south relations are turning worse and worse, and getting itself fully ready for providing a sure military guarantee to any external measures to be taken by the Party and government,” the army staff was quoted as saying by KCNA.
North Korea didn’t provide details of what areas it meant but appears to be referring to a disarmed region near a now-shuttered joint factory park with South Korea in the western city of Kaesong and a closed joint resort on the east around North Korea’s Mount Kumgang, the Yonhap news agency reported.
The plan doesn’t appear to call for a scrapping of the terms set out in the 1953 Armistice Agreement that ended fighting in the Korean War and led to a 4-kilometer (2.5-mile) wide demilitarized zone buffer to be set up across the peninsula. North and South Korea have about 1 million troops stationed near their ends of the buffer zone, making it one of the most heavily fortified borders in the world.
North Korea has also called on South Korea to abide by the terms of a 2018 agreement between the two nations aimed at reducing accidental border clashes. The accord, seen as a landmark in reconciliation, led to the two Koreas to each destroy 10 front-line guard posts, enforce a ban on military exercises in the area and impose a no-fly zone.
The announcement follows rising tensions with Seoul since two activist groups sent anti-Kim leaflets by balloon across the border into North Korea early this month. That prompted Kim’s younger sister to issue an unusual statement saying that it was “high time” to break ties with South Korea.
The sister, Kim Yo Jong, said that the next action against the “enemy” would come from the army, raising memories of a decade ago, when North Korea shelled a South Korean island, killing four, and was suspected of torpedoing the South Korean warship, killing 46 sailors.
South Korean President Moon Jae-in tried to defuse tensions by seeking to cancel the licenses of the two groups — Fighters for Free North Korea and KeunSaem — over the leaflets. That effort drew criticism from Human Rights Watch, whose Asia director, Phil Robertson, called the move “a blatant violation of freedom of association that cannot be justified with vague appeals to border security and relations with the North.”
Millions of leaflets have flown across the border for more than a decade bearing messages critical of North Korean leaders, with the latest coming as Kim made fewer public appearances over the past several weeks than normal, leading to global speculation about his health.