South Koreans living near border with North unnerved by return of artillery thunder

Posted on : 2024-07-04 16:32 KST Modified on : 2024-07-04 16:32 KST
South Korea has brought back artillery drills along the border with the North after totally suspending a buffer-creating inter-Korean military pact signed in 2018
South Korean Marines recommenced live-fire maritime drills using K9 howitzers on June 26, 2024, across the islands that lie in proximity to North Korea. (courtesy of the ROK Marine Corps Northwest Islands Defense Command)
South Korean Marines recommenced live-fire maritime drills using K9 howitzers on June 26, 2024, across the islands that lie in proximity to North Korea. (courtesy of the ROK Marine Corps Northwest Islands Defense Command)

“After the artillery drills began yesterday, the group chat for apartment residents blew up. Everyone’s feeling anxious.”

Upon meeting the Hankyoreh’s reporter at 11 am on Wednesday, Seo Hee-jeong, a 56-year-old resident of an apartment located in the town of Yeoncheon in Gyeonggi Province’s Yeoncheon County, immediately held out his cell phone screen. The chat displayed on it documented the anxieties of apartment residents in real time.

A day earlier, a roughly two-hour artillery drill was held at 8 am at the Jeokgeori Firing Range in Yeoncheon’s Jung township, with K9 howitzers and other weapons used in the exercise.

Shortly after the drill began, the first message in the resident’s group chat went up at 8:11 am.

“I just heard some kind of loud explosion. Are those cannons?” the resident asked.

“The noise was so loud it scared me,” read another reply.

“My son says it’s thundering out,” another resident wrote.

Seo explained, “The explosions are loud enough to pass through double soundproofed windows, which has everyone anxious.”

“This is a new apartment that people just started moving into last year. It seems like our neighbors who are new to Yeoncheon were even more caught off guard,” Seo added.

In a regular Ministry of Defense briefing Tuesday morning, the Army announced that artillery training had been resumed at firing ranges within 5 kilometers of the Military Demarcation Line (MDL). These drills involved six K9 howitzers and six self-propelled howitzers, with a total of approximately 140 rounds fired, the ministry said. 

South Korean Marines recommenced live-fire maritime drills using K9 howitzers on June 26, 2024, across the islands that lie in proximity to North Korea. (courtesy of the ROK Marine Corps Northwest Islands Defense Command)
South Korean Marines recommenced live-fire maritime drills using K9 howitzers on June 26, 2024, across the islands that lie in proximity to North Korea. (courtesy of the ROK Marine Corps Northwest Islands Defense Command)

Previously, artillery drills and outdoor maneuvers at the regiment-level and higher had been suspended within 5 kilometers of the MDL based on a September 2018 military agreement between South and North Korea.

But on June 4, the Yoon Suk-yeol administration in the South fully suspended that agreement in response to North Korea’s launching of trash-laden balloons toward the South. The resumption of artillery exercises occurred against this backdrop.

Yeoncheon County was also the setting of an exchange that occurred in 2014 when North Korea fired anti-aircraft weapons against propaganda leaflets sent by a private group in the South, prompting the South Korean military to return fire. Some of the bullets fired by the North Korean military at the time landed in the Jung township area.

With memories of that experience still in their minds, residents of Yeoncheon County reacted keenly to the drills.

Oh Myeong-chun, a 61-year-old resident of the area who was born and raised in the county, said, “From the time I was a child, the military did a lot of artillery exercises. I was really shocked 10 years ago when North Korea fired its weapons.”

“When I hear the sounds of artillery again, I worry that there might be some kind of localized fighting taking place,” Oh added.

Kwon Mi-yeong, a 58-year-old resident of the county’s Gunnam township, said, “I moved out to the countryside around 11 years ago, and now I’m worried that I might actually have to leave Yeoncheon County.”

“My cat was shaking from shock at the sound of artillery fire. After I saw that, I just cried thinking about how things have reached this state after everything was fine for so long,” she added.

At 4 pm that day, an emergency roundtable was held at the Yeoncheon County Assembly’s main conference room on the topic of “banning the sending of propaganda leaflets to North Korea and protecting the safety of border residents.”

Oh Jin-seok, the chairperson of an association of business in the town of Jeongok, said, “When they have occasional emergencies at the military base, what we go through is similar to the COVID-19 pandemic. There’s nobody around, and many business owners close early and go home.”

“If these kinds of incidents and accidents keep happening along the border with North Korea, it’s going to be impossible for people in the area to make a living,” he fretted.

Lee Seok-hee, the chairperson of the Yeoncheon County farmers’ association, explained, “When they launch leaflet [balloons] from Yeoncheon, that prevents access by the farmers who grow crops in the Civilian Control Line (CCL) area.”

“As a matter of fact, farming access was barred north of the CCL in some areas due to the leaflets and trash balloons. If this keeps up, we’ll have to quit farming,” Lee added.

Despite the residents’ complaints, the military exercises continue. On Tuesday, tactical exercises involving armored cars and other tracked vehicles are scheduled to take place in Yeoncheon.

By Lee Seung-wook, staff reporter

Please direct questions or comments to [english@hani.co.kr]

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