Choi Kang, vice-president of the Asian Institute for Policy Studies, says the timing of the “grey area” provocation shows Kim is still in charge of the North Korean military.
“Yesterday, Kim was trying to show he is perfectly healthy, and today, Kim is trying to mute all kinds of speculation that he may not have full control over the military,” Choi said.
“Rather than going all the way by firing missiles and supervising a missile launch, Kim could be reminding us, ‘yes I’m healthy and I’m still in power’.”
The two Koreas had previously exchanged fire within the heavily fortified DMZ, including in 2014 when Kim was unseen in public for more than a month. Hundreds of thousands of troops on both sides of the border guard the DMZ that bisects the peninsula, a legacy of the 1950-53 war that ended in a truce rather than a peace treaty.
KCNA said Kim attended Friday’s ceremony marking the completion of a fertiliser factory near Pyongyang along with senior officials. State TV showed Kim smiling and walking around factory facilities.
Kim earlier vanished from the public eye after presiding over a Politburo meeting of the ruling Workers’ Party on April 11 to discuss the coronavirus. Speculation about his health began swirling after he missed an April 15 event commemorating the birthday of his grandfather and state founder, Kim Il-sung, something he had never done since inheriting power upon his father Kim Jong-il’s death in late 2011.
US President Donald Trump on Saturday welcomed the public appearance of Kim, but prospects for the US efforts to persuade Pyongyang to denuclearise appear as bleak as ever.
A US government source said Washington strongly believes Kim is alive, but has not been able to confirm that the images that appeared of Kim were taken on Friday, or explain why he had not been seen for weeks.
Trump, who met Kim three times in 2018 and 2019 in unsuccessful attempts to persuade him to give up his nuclear weapons, tweeted on Saturday: “I, for one, am glad to see he is back, and well!”
The Koreas are split along the 248-kilometre-long, 4-kilometre-wide border called the Demilitarised Zone that was originally created as a buffer. But unlike its name, the DMZ is the world’s most heavily fortified border. An estimated 2 million mines are peppered inside and near the DMZ, which is also guarded by barbed wire fences, tank traps and combat troops on both sides.
In late 2018, the two Koreas began destroying some of their front-line guard posts and removing mines from the DMZ as part of steps to reduce tensions. But the efforts stalled amid a deadlock in nuclear negotiations between Kim and President Donald Trump meant to convince North Korea to give up its arsenal in exchange for lifting economic sanctions.
The last time there was gunfire along the border was in 2017, when North Korea sprayed bullets at a soldier fleeing to South Korea.
Reuters, Bloomberg, AP