South's response to gunfire from North took over 30 minutes
South Korea’s military on Wednesday held a press conference to clear up controversy surrounding its exchange of gunfire with North Koreans at the demilitarized zone (DMZ) last week sparked by an unexpected volley from the North.
According to Seoul’s Joint Chiefs of Staff (JCS), South Korean soldiers posted to a guard post in the DMZ at Cheorwon, Gangwon, on May 3 heard bullets hitting the outer wall of the guard post at around 7:41 a.m.
The soldiers said they realized they were being fired at after feeling shockwaves from the bullets, and immediately reported the incident to a command post.
But it was not clear where the bullets had come from, as fog was covering the area that day, limiting the soldiers’ field of vision to around 500 meters (0.3 miles) to 1 kilometer.
One of the troops noticed three bullet marks on the outer wall of the command post at around 7:51 a.m., deducing that they came from a North Korean guard post in the east. The battalion commander who received the report ordered the South Korean soldiers to return fire at around 7:56 a.m.
The commanding officer at the South’s guard post ordered the return fire at 8:00 a.m. The troops attempted three times to fire back with a KR-6 gun installed at the guard post, but the remote control system used in the weapon system malfunctioned.
It was already 8:13 a.m. when the South Korean troops finally returned fire using a K-3 light machine gun, which had to be moved toward the direction of the North Korean guard post in question. A total of 15 shots were fired, followed by another 15 at 8:18 a.m. using another KR-6 gun.
The total time it took the South Korean military to respond with return fire was 32 minutes from the time the first North Korean bullet hit the guard post. The delay raised questions about the preparedness of South Korean troops in a situation that could have turned highly volatile.
The KR-6 machine gun that its troops had attempted to use in their initial response was also found to be partially defective, leading to speculation that the military had failed to conduct proper maintenance checks.
A JCS spokesman said that if the KR-6 gun had fired properly, the return fire could have happened within 10 minutes of the initial shots from the North.
“Without the fog, the [troops] could have fired within two to three minutes,” the spokesman said. “It is unfortunate that the KR-6 did not fire, but the response [of the soldiers] was appropriate and based on guidelines.”
Another North Korean bullet mark was found at the guard post in the meantime, leading the military to conclude the North had fired four bullets toward the South.
The JCS said it was sticking to its original determination that the North’s gunfire was accidental and not meant as a provocation to Seoul.
“Our military fired back in two separate rounds, but the North did not respond and carried out their usual farming activities [that day],” the spokesman said. “The North Korean troops working at their guard posts that day were also not wearing their helmets.”
The South’s Ministry of National Defense has nonetheless labeled the incident a violation by the North of a military agreement signed by the two sides on Sept. 19, 2018, in which the Koreas agreed to effectively cease hostile activities on the border.
No response has come from Pyongyang to Seoul’s request for an apology over the incident. The United Nations Command, which oversees the DMZ, undertook an investigation of the incident, but its conclusions have not yet been made public.
BY SHIM KYU-SEOK [firstname.lastname@example.org]