North Korea has started rebuilding guard posts and stationing heavy weapons along its border with South Korea, the defence ministry in Seoul has said, after the countries’ withdrawal from a key confidence-building agreement designed to prevent a war.
Media reports cited the South Korean military as saying it had detected troops from the North repairing camouflaged guard posts that the regime had destroyed as part of a comprehensive military agreement in 2018 designed to lower the risk of a confrontation along the heavily armed demilitarised zone (DMZ).
The South’s military said North Korean soldiers had been observed digging trenches at sites along the border and the regime had sent heavy weapons to the area.
The DMZ has divided the two countries since the end of the 1950-53 Korean war and is seen as a potential flashpoint in any future inter-Korean conflict.
The neighbours had dismantled or disarmed 11 guard posts as part of the 2018 deal, but both sides appear ready to ditch the agreement after a recent rise in tensions triggered by the North’s launch last Tuesday of a spy satellite in defiance of UN sanctions.
After the launch, Seoul said it would suspend parts of the agreement and resume aerial surveillance near the border. In response, Pyongyang said it would deploy powerful weapons near the border and walk away from the agreement.
The deal, reached during a period of rapprochement between South Korea’s then president, Moon Jae-in, and the North’s leader, Kim Jong-un, committed both sides to demolishing guard posts within 1km of the border, banning military drills and manoeuvres near the land and sea borders, and establishing no-fly zones.
The South Korean defence ministry on Monday distributed to journalists photographs that it said showed North Korean soldiers building a temporary guard post and moving what appeared to be a recoilless rifle – a portable anti-vehicle weapon or light artillery piece – to a newly built trench.
“Our military will closely monitor North Korea’s provocative acts while maintaining full readiness to be able to immediately retaliate to North Korea’s provocations … based on our strengthened combined posture with the US,” the ministry said, according to the Yonhap news agency.
North Korea has threatened to launch more satellites, which violate UN security council sanctions because they incorporate technology used in long-range ballistic missiles.
In a statement carried by the state-run KCNA news agency on Monday, North Korea’s foreign ministry dismissed condemnation of the satellite launch from the US and nine other members of the UN security council.
It said the launch was “a legal and just way to exercise its right to defend itself and thoroughly respond to and precisely monitor … serious military action by the US and its followers”.
South Korean officials confirmed that the satellite had entered orbit and said more time was needed to determine if it was functioning normally. There is speculation that the launch was made possible by technological assistance from Russia, possibly in exchange for North Korean ammunition to support the Kremlin’s war in Ukraine.