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North And South Korea Exchange Fire Across Border


North and South Korea, which have technically been at war for the last 65 years, are again acting like it. North Korean troops are on high alert after the North fired a rocket across the demilitarized zone separating the two countries this week. The South has responded with dozens of shells. Steven Borowiec reports for The Los Angeles Times, and joins me now from Seoul, South Korea.

Welcome to the program.

STEVEN BOROWIEC: Thank you for having me on.

CORNISH: So I understand what sort of kicked this off is that South Korea began kind of blasting anti-North propaganda out of loudspeakers on the border, which is something they used to do in the past. What's going on?

BOROWIEC: Well, it all kind of comes from explosion in the DMZ, which is the sort of de facto border that separates North and South Korea, which injured two South Korean soldiers that the South has blamed on North Korea but, of course, North Korea has not apologized for. That recently led to a spike in tensions and then the South Korean government decided to restart these propaganda broadcasts, which they normally don't do. And things have just kind of escalated from there.

CORNISH: Can you talk about what indications people see that the North is mobilizing in any way, in terms of short range missiles and other things?

BOROWIEC: Well, most of that comes from the South's intelligence agencies. You know, they monitor very closely North Korean military as they move throughout the country, as they mobilize different kinds of forces that are normally not in action. I think something that's unusual about the case we're seeing right now is that North Korea's given a pretty specific timeline. They've said, like, if you don't stop the propaganda broadcasts by 5 p.m. on Saturday, you know, Korean time, that they're going to launch some kind of military action. And that's unusual, you know, normally North Korea voices all kinds of threats but they're normally very vague. They're normally very kind of open-ended. So I think that's the thing that makes this case a little bit different from what we normally see over here.

CORNISH: Give us some context here because we've heard that the South Korean president has been trying to improve North-South ties. This seems like a step back, no?

BOROWIEC: It does. I mean, President Park has tried to take a more conciliatory tone than her predecessor, Myung-bok, did. But there just hasn't been any real common ground between the two sides during her time in power. You know, in North Korea, there's a young leader, Kim Jong Un, and he hasn't really made any kind of overtures to the South that could be any kind of momentum for the two sides to find common ground upon. So we're kind of stuck in this situation where both sides are reluctant to make any kind of overture, and, you know, these tensions are an inevitable result of that.

CORNISH: What response has there been from the government of South Korea?

BOROWIEC: The response from the South Korean government has been that they've asked North Korea to call off any provocations, and they've said that in the event of any provocations, they will respond with maximum force, which I guess is meant to be a deterrent. And, you know, if you live in South Korea, these things are kind - there's a certain "Groundhog Day" quality to these. There's, you know, threats from the North and then the South promises to respond very strongly. But I think there is something of a sense here that this case is a little bit different because the two sides have already exchanged fire, and over the next 24 hours or so we'll see what actually comes of this.

CORNISH: That's reporter Steven Borowiec speaking to us from Seoul.

Thank you so much.

BOROWIEC: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.