North’s army chief inspects JSA

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North’s army chief inspects JSA

North Korea’s Chief of General Staff of the Army, Ri Myong-su, led a group of senior military officials to the Joint Security Area (JSA) over a week after one of its soldiers defected to the South on Nov. 13, a sign that Pyongyang was taking the case seriously, several South Korean government officials exclusively told the JoongAng Ilbo Sunday.

The inspection is suspected to have taken place around Nov. 24, said a government source, shortly after North Korea’s JSA border guards were censured and entirely swapped with new personnel.

The North had also added a gate leading to the 72-Hour Bridge, which the defector sped across in a jeep in order to reach the border with the South, and built concrete walls around the area.

Ri, who climbed the ranks since the former Kim Jong-il era, is a standing member of the ruling Workers’ Party’s Politburo and Central Military Committee.

South Korean National Defense Minister Song Young-moo inspected the south side of the JSA on Nov. 27, going as far north as stepping inside the JSA security battalion’s guard post right at the Military Demarcation Line (MDL), the first defense minister to do so.

As Song and his aides approached the MDL, three North Korean border guards showed up on the opposite side, the same place from which they fired at the defector two weeks earlier. The defector, known as a 24-year-old surnamed Oh, sustained at least five gunshot wounds in his shoulder, elbow and abdomen.

Local intelligence sources who spoke with the paper said it appeared North Korea reprimanded commanders overlooking the JSA as well, and started beefing up screening procedures for personnel assigned to the front-line guard posts.

North Korea’s military is known to have begun its four-month winter training last Friday, which includes cold-weather shooting practice and outdoor field exercise. This year’s training will not be as vigorous as the ones held in previous years, a local government official said, due to a lack of supplies in the face of international sanctions against the regime.

With Kim Jong-il’s six-year death anniversary coming up on Dec. 17, local authorities are watching out for a possible North Korean missile test or nuclear experiment.

Lee Yoo-jin, deputy spokeswoman of South Korea’s Unification Ministry, said last Friday during a regular briefing in Seoul that the government expected Pyongyang to refrain from carrying out any additional provocations for the time being, unless some sort of a “sudden change” occurs within the regime, or an external matter affects it.

No imminent signs of a provocation have been detected yet, she said.

BY LEE CHUL-JAE, LEE SUNG-EUN [lee.sungeun@joongang.co.kr]

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