An exchange of gunfire at the border between North and South Korea over the weekend, just after North Korean Leader Kim Jong Un reappeared in public after a three-week absence, appeared to be a deliberate message from the North that the status quo remains unchanged, North Korea watchers told RFA Monday.
Kim, who had not made a public appearance since mid-April, was the subject of rumors and speculation with several media outlets reporting the Supreme Leader was having major health issues following cardiovascular surgery, some even citing sources in the intelligence community.
But he emerged Friday in seemingly good health at a ribbon-cutting ceremony for the Sunchon phosphate fertilizer factory in South Pyongan province. Sources within North Korea told RFA’s Korean Service that the factory is not yet finished, and the ceremony was meant specifically to show those both abroad and at home Kim Jong Un was alive and well.
“The Number One Event was held in a hurry just to make Kim Jong Un happy, without completing the factory’s testing phase,” the source said, using a term that refers to events attended by North Korean leaders.
Lessons from media frenzy
Kim’s reappearance served as the latest reminder to international media that a feedback loop of misinformation could result in wild speculation that went as far as declaring him dead and identifying his successor, experts said.
“The media frenzy during Kim’s absence showed that some journalists were willing to push stories from sources that clearly did not have access to information or were horribly poor at analysis,” Bruce Klingner of the Heritage Foundation told RFA.
“Long-time Korea watchers were those counseling the most caution on accepting such reports at face value,” he added.
Amid the media’s speculation officials in the South Korean government also repeatedly issued statements that it had no information indicating Kim Jong Un’s health was in serious decline during the three weeks he went missing from the public eye, including an official saying Monday that he did not even have surgery, as was reported last month.
“It also showed that North Korea remains a black hole for information as well as the outsized importance of one man’s health has for North Korean succession and regime stability,” said Klingner.
“While North Korea may have a succession plan behind the scenes, it is unclear to the outside world which worries about a potential succession struggle in a nuclear weapons nation,” Klingner said.
Despite the clear or apparent miscues by the media and intelligence communities, the media frenzy did shine a light on the need for a contingency plan in the event of Kim Jong Un’s death, according to the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies’ David Maxwell.
“This should be a wake-up call for the ROK/US alliance the regional powers and the international community,” Maxwell told RFA.
“Everyone needs to think through the answer to one simple question: What immediate actions do you take if you learn today that Kim Jong is dead,” he said.
Fire exchanged at DMZ
Highlighting the potential for miscalculation, North and South Korean troops exchanged fire on Sunday along the Demilitarized Zone (DMZ) dividing the peninsula, the first such event since 2018, according to the South Korean armed forces.
According to the Joint Chiefs of Staff in Seoul, North Korean troops fired several bullets into a South Korean guard post near the border town of Cheorwon, with South Korean troops responding with about 20 warning shots before broadcasting a warning, as is the protocol for such an event. No casualties on either side were reported.
As North Korea shot first, South Korea’s military considers the incident a violation of a 2018 inter-Korean military agreement.
“I think that the incident at Cheorweon was a violation of the bilateral military agreement that was signed between North Korea and South Korea in 2018, and I think that just goes to show that absent consistent dialogue and confidence building measures between the two Koreas, agreements are just words on a piece of paper,” Jessica Lee of the Quincy Institute told RFA.
“This is, I think, another reason why having constant channels of communication and more normalized relations is key, certainly in this context and in any context in international relations,” she said.
Yonhap news agency reported that the South Korean military later said the gunshots were “not deemed intentional.”
Klingner and Maxwell, however, described the incident as not “accidental,” but stopped short of saying it was a clear provocation.
“If four rounds struck the South Korean guard post as reported it was not accidental. It was well-aimed fire. It was not an accidental or negligent discharge. Was this ordered by the regime to serve as a provocation? If so it was a very weak one,” said Maxwell.
“Did a local commander misinterpret his orders and take the wrong action? Possibly and then it could be considered a mistake. I think the ROK soldiers responded correctly and then diffused the situation through broadcasts as is normal procedure,” he said.
“My real concern with these incidents is if there is a break down in the North Korean military's chains of control. If North Korean soldiers or small units try to escape they are likely to be fired upon by the remaining forces to prevent their escape. That situation can lead to misunderstanding and miscalculation and even escalation,” added Maxwell.
Klingner said the incident showed that South Korean President Moon Jae In’s relatively soft policies on North Korea have not affected the situation much.
“While it is hard to believe that several shots were ‘accidental,’ there are more incidents along the DMZ than often reported in the media,” he said
“However, the incident does show that despite President Moon’s much vaunted Comprehensive Military Agreement with the North, the situation has not really changed,” he added.
Meanwhile South Korea’s opposition party urged the government to be firmer in its response to North Korean provocations.
“The North Korean military’s firing was a direct violation of the 9.19 inter-Korean military agreement. Therefore, the South Korean government and military should not only protest strongly, but also receive an apology and a promise from North Korea to prevent a recurrence,” said Won Yoo Chul, leader of the Future Korea Party, a party aligned with the main opposition United Future Party.
Reported by Hyemin Son, Soyoung Kim, Seung Wook Hong, and Jae Duk Seo for RFA’s Korean Service. Translated by Leejin Jun. Written in English by Eugene Whong.