Removal of North Korean border artillery that can destroy Seoul is under discussion, South says
North Korea has deployed an estimated 1,000 artillery pieces along the border, posing a significant threat to Seoul and the metropolitan area
The rival Koreas are discussing the possible relocation of North Korea’s long-range artillery systems away from the tense Korean border, the South’s prime minister said on Monday, as the countries forge ahead with steps to lower tensions and extend a recent detente. At the same time, Pyongyang pulled the plug on its annual anti-US rally.
North Korea has deployed an estimated 1,000 artillery pieces along the border, posing a significant threat to Seoul and the metropolitan area.
In a speech marking the 68th anniversary of the outbreak of the 1950-53 Korean war, Prime Minister Lee Nak-yon said that “moving (North Korea’s) long-range artillery to the rear is under discussion,” as he explained what types of goodwill steps between the sides have been taken in recent months.
Lee’s comments appear to be Seoul’s first official confirmation of media reports that South Korea demanded that the North reposition its forward-deployed artillery pieces during inter-Korean military talks this month.
Seoul’s Defence Ministry, which has denied those reports, said it had no immediate comment on Lee’s speech.
A 2016 South Korean defence white paper described the North’s long-range artillery as one of the country’s biggest threats, along with its nuclear and missile programmes.
Seoul, a capital city with 10 million people, is about 40-50 kilometres (25-30 miles) from the border.
South Korean media speculated that during the June 14 military talks, the North probably demanded that South Korea and the United States withdraw their own artillery systems from the border as a reciprocal measure.
About 28,500 US soldiers are deployed in South Korea.
Also on Monday, the two Koreas agreed to fully restore military communication lines on the Sea of Japan and Yellow Sea sides as soon as possible, according to the South’s defence ministry.
The colonel-level meeting in Paju, a city just south of the border dividing the two Koreas, followed a June 14 agreement between generals of the two Koreas to fully restore the military communication lines.
A military communication line on the Sea of Japan side, also called the East Sea, was damaged in a forest fire in 2010 and needs to be re-established, according to the ministry. Military communication on the Yellow Sea side remains partially inoperative.
The colonel-level meeting, the first of its kind since 2011, lasted about an hour at the Customs, Immigration and Quarantine office in Dorasan, Paju, according to the ministry. The South’s delegation was led by Cho Yong-geun, an army colonel, while Colonel Om Chang-nam led the North.
The talks came a day after Seoul said it would “indefinitely suspend” two small-scale annual military drills with the United States. The drills involving marines from the allies were supposed to occur from July to September, according to a statement from South Korea’s Defence Ministry.
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It said South Korea was willing to take unspecified additional measures if North Korea was continuously engaged in “productive” negotiations.
Last week, South Korea and the United States announced the suspension of their larger, annual military exercises called the Ulchi Freedom Guardian, part of their efforts to increase the chances of successful nuclear diplomacy with North Korea.
The North announced on Monday that would not to hold its annual “anti-US imperialism” rally marking the anniversary of the start of the Korean war, another sign of detente following the summit between Kim and Trump.
Last year’s event was held on Pyongyang’s Kim Il-sung Square with a reported 100,000 people attending. The government even issued special anti-US postage stamps.
Meanwhile, the United States will soon present a timeline to North Korea with “specific asks” of Pyongyang after the recent historic summit between US President Donald Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong-un, a senior US defence official said.
The official, who spoke to a small group of reporters ahead of a trip to Asia this week by Defence Secretary Jim Mattis, did not specify details but suggested that the timeline would be rapid enough to make clear Pyongyang’s level of commitment.
“We’ll know pretty soon if they’re going to operate in good faith or not,” the official said, speaking on condition of anonymity. “There will be specific asks and there will be a specific timeline when we present the North Koreans with our concept of what implementation of the summit agreement looks like.”
US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said last week he would probably travel back to North Korea “before too terribly long” to try to flesh out commitments made at the June 12 summit in Singapore between Trump and Kim.
At the Singapore summit, the first meeting between a serving US president and a North Korean leader, Kim reaffirmed a commitment to work toward complete denuclearisation of the Korean peninsula, while Trump said he would halt joint US-South Korean “war games”.
Mattis is at the start of a week-long trip that includes stops in China, South Korea and Japan.
Mattis arrived on Sunday in Alaska, where he will visit Fort Greely and Eielson Air Force Base, before continuing to China.
His trip there from June 26-28 would be the first by a US defence secretary since 2014, and comes as Sino-US tensions have heightened over trade and China’s muscular military posture in the South China Sea.
North Korea was expected to be among the top items on Mattis’ agenda during his talks with senior Chinese officials.
He will then travel to South Korea and end his trip with talks in Japan on June 29.
Associated Press, Kyodo, Reuters