August 24, 2015

By Steven Borowiec and Jonathan Kaiman  

SEOUL — North and South Korea have reached an agreement intended to defuse a bout of cross-border tensions that involved loudspeakers, land mines and artillery fire, and put both sides’ militaries on high alert.

Under the deal, announced early Tuesday morning local time, South Korea promised to stop broadcasting anti-North Korean propaganda from loudspeakers arranged along the two countries’ heavily-guarded border by noon on Tuesday, South Korea’s Yonhap News Agency reported, without giving a source.

The North, in turn, promised to lift a “semi-state of war” that it announced on Friday, and expressed “regret” over a land mine explosion that maimed two South Korean soldiers earlier this month. The Koreas will “hold talks again in Seoul or Pyongyang as soon as possible,” Yonhap said in a tweet.

As part of the deal, Yonhap said, North and South Korea agreed to speak in September about arranging reunions for families divided by the Korean War, which ended with an armistice in July 1953.

The two countries’ current crisis began early this month, when South Korea accused the North of planting three land mines that exploded along the two countries’ border, severing the legs of two South Korean soldiers. North Korea denied planting the mines; Seoul retaliated by activating the loudspeakers for the first time in 11 years.

On Thursday, North Korean troops shot at some of the speakers, leading to a brief artillery volley.

The marathon talks began on Saturday evening and ran into the early morning; they reconvened on Sunday afternoon and did not conclude until 12:55 a.m. on Tuesday.

They involved high-level delegations from both sides. The South sent national security chief Kim Kwan-jin, and Hong Yong-pyo, who heads the Ministry of Unification, Seoul’s body for relations with North Korea. Pyongyang sent Hwang Pyong-so, who is regarded as a top aide to leader Kim Jong Un, and Kim Yang-gon, the North’s top official for relations with South Korea.

As the meetings dragged on, both sides put their militaries on high alert. The South’s Defense Ministry said in a briefing on Monday that South Korea and the U.S. considered deploying a B-52 bomber and nuclear armed submarine to stand battle ready.

The South Korean military announced over the weekend that 50 North Korean submarines had left their ports. The North has also used amphibious landing craft to move special forces near the Koreas’ maritime border on the Yellow Sea, Yonhap reported Monday.

On Monday, the Rodong Sinmun, North Korea’s official newspaper, accused South Korea of creating the tensions as a pretext for invading the North.

The loudspeakers have been a point of particular contention between the two sides. They blast information about life in South Korea 24 hours a day at several points along the border. Most North Koreans lack Internet service and can only access state-approved television and radio.

Experts say that the broadcasts threatened the North Korean government’s efforts to control what information reaches its citizens.

“North Korea is really nervous about the breaking of their information barrier,” said Stephan Haggard, a North Korea expert at UC San Diego. “They see the broadcasts as insults to their deified leader Kim Jong Un.”

When accused by the South, North Korea tends to not apologize for or admit to provocations. Relations between the two Koreas still have not recovered from 2010, when 46 South Korean sailors died in the sinking of the warship Cheonan. South Korea accused North Korea of torpedoing the ship; Pyongyang steadfastly denied responsibility for the sinking.


(Special correspondent Borowiec reported from Seoul and Times staff writer Kaiman from Beijing.