INDEPENDENT 2024-07-06 00:17:36


Armed clash fears in the buffer zone between North and South Korea

In Majeong-ri, South Korea, Yoon Seol Hyun proudly claims to run the closest guesthouse to North Korea. Only a bridge, a set of guard posts, and several lines of barbed wire fence separate his village from the demilitarised zone (DMZ) which splits the Korean peninsula in two.

Normally, his hostel offers a peaceful getaway for locals visiting from the nearby capital of Seoul. But tensions between the North and the South have spiked recently and Yoon is worried, with a number of incidents around the DMZ, which is 150 miles long and 2.5 miles wide.

Last month, a number of North Korean soldiers – believed to be between 20 and 30 – briefly crossed the demarcation line on three occasions, retreating after soldiers from the South fired warning shots. Seoul said the incidents were likely accidents. Meanwhile, the North has been sending balloons filled with rubbish over the border, it claims in retaliation for a propaganda campaign by North Korean defectors and activists in the South who regularly send over balloons carrying food, medicine, money and leaflets criticising the North’s leaders.

Yoon worries that if things escalate, both sides of the peninsula will go from trading balloons to trading bullets and bombs instead, and that his village will be the first to be impacted.

“Hostility between South and North is higher,” he says. “This area is close to the border, it is very serious, we worry about that.”

Tasked with monitoring these developments is Major General Ivo Burgener, head of the Swiss delegation to the Neutral Nations Supervisory Commission (NNSC). Currently made up of five Swiss and five Swedish soldiers who live inside the DMZ, the NNSC has monitored adherence to the Korean war’s armistice agreement since it was signed in 1953. While this armistice ended hostilities, a peace treaty was never signed and both sides remain technically at war.

Stationed in a hut just metres from the North Korean border, Burgener and the NNSC have a frontline view of how the frozen conflict has developed. Since the start of the year, they have noticed a significant remilitarisation on both sides of the DMZ.

“There are more activities in the DMZ,” Burgener adds, also citing an increase in soldiers, weapons, and construction activity. “The situation is becoming more uncertain.”

With Pyongyang developing its military infrastructure, destroying sections of road, building walls, and planting landmines, explosions from the Northern side now also regularly interrupt the NNSC’s work. South Korea’s Yonhap News Agency reported recently that North Korean soldiers had sustained “multiple casualties” caused by landmines exploding on the Northern side of the DMZ.

“We are seeing more and more militarisation efforts,” explains NNSC operations officer Lieutenant Colonel Livio Raeber. “There is more military equipment inside the DMZ.” Previously unarmed soldiers that face off on either side of the border are now once again armed, and both sides have begun to rebuild formerly decommissioned guard posts.

While the balloons are described by analysts as “low-level provocations,” Burgener points out that they have not helped to de-escalate tensions.

“The possibility of an escalation is higher than before, and this is something that we monitor very closely,” Raeber adds.

“The risk of misunderstandings and unplanned incidents along the DMZ are rising,” says Burgener. In a worst-case scenario, he warned this could lead to “escalation, the outbreak of a conflict”.

At the start of the year, North Korea’s Kim Jong-un branded the South a “principal enemy” and relations on the Korean peninsula are now arguably “at the lowest point in the last five or six years”, said Dr Edward Howell, a Korean Foundation fellow at Chatham House.

Kim’s recent meeting with Russian leader Vladimir Putin, which culminated in the signing of a strategic partnership agreement between the two, has also added to the tension. The guesthouse owner Yoon says that things do not need to be this bad.

In 2018, both sides signed an agreement, aimed at decreasing tensions by partially demilitarising the DMZ, and he was hopeful that the agreement could mitigate the risk of conflict.

“We were very thankful,” he says. “Those times were more peaceful.”

Now, Yoon’s phone buzzes with alerts. Issued by authorities in Seoul, they warn of more incoming balloons and other notes. Yoon sees his responsibility to help maintain peace and he regularly organises events to educate tourists about the area.

And despite living on the frontlines of this frozen conflict, he has no intention of leaving. “This is my hometown,” he says. “I was born in this village, my father, my grandfather was born in this village.”

Six Chinese nationals mining for gold killed in Congo militia attack

Six Chinese citizens were killed and several went missing after a local militia targeted a mining site in the Democratic Republic of Congo, authorities said on Thursday as the central African country continued to be wracked by widespread violence.

At least two and possibly three Congolese soldiers were also killed in the attack, which took place in the gold-rich Djugu territory in Ituri province.

The attack was carried out by a militia called Codeco, or Cooperative for the Development of the Congo, Djugu administrator Ruphin Mapela said.

A Red Cross representative in the region said the militiamen “entered the camp and killed six Chinese nationals and three soldiers”.

“They were killed with bullets,” Dhekana Ernest said, adding that the corpses were taken to the city of Bunia.

An army spokesperson said the soldiers guarding the mining site shot dead at least six of the attackers.

Codeco is one of numerous militias engaged in deadly conflicts over land and mineral resources in eastern Congo.

The UN has accused it of carrying out possible war crimes and crimes against humanity.

The militia has killed hundreds of civilians in Ituri in recent years and forced thousands to flee their homes, according to the UN.

Codeco has also been blamed for killing many foreigners in the African nation.

Beijing condemned the attack on a “Chinese-funded private enterprise” which it said caused the death and disappearance of several Chinese citizens.

“We urge the DRC to pursue and punish the perpetrators in accordance with the law as soon as possible,” Chinese foreign ministry spokesperson Mao Ning said. Beijing was working with Congolese authorities to locate the missing, she added.

Ms Ning urged Congo’s government to beef up security for Chinese people and enterprises in the country. “Those already in high-risk areas should be evacuated as soon as possible,” she said.

Congo has granted mining concessions to many private Chinese operators that partner with local licence holders, providing funding and machinery and often bringing in Chinese workers.

Death toll mounts as floods in India displace over 2 million people

More than 2.1 million people have been displaced due to floods and landslides triggered by heavy rains in the northeastern Indian state of Assam.

At least six people died this week, taking the death toll from heavy downpours since May to 52, the state disaster management authority said on Thursday.

More than 386,000 people are taking shelter in 515 relief camps set up in the 24 flood-affected districts.

The water levels in the Brahmaputra, one of Asia’s largest rivers, have dropped marginally, but the flood situation remains grim, a state disaster management spokesperson said.

“Western Assam’s Dhubri and northern Assam’s Darrang are the worst-affected districts where 649,000 and 190,000 people have been displaced.”

Assam chief minister Himanta Biswa Sarma said the floods were caused mainly by the breaching of eight embankments and rain in the upstream state of Arunachal Pradesh. “No human intervention can stop it,” he said.

The Brahmaputra, which flows 1,280km in Assam state before running through Bangladesh, is one of 13 major rivers flowing above the danger level.

Incessant rainfall this year has made the Brahmaputra, already known for its powerful and unpredictable flow, even more dangerous to live near.

There are more than 2,000 villages settled on islands in the middle of the river.

Animals in the state’s Kaziranga National Park, famed as the home of the one-horned rhino, were moving to higher ground to escape the floods.

At least 31 animals – 30 hog deer and one otter pup – died after flood waters inundated nearly 80 per cent of the reserve.

Forest guards rescued 82 animals, including a baby rhino.

In neighbouring Arunachal Pradesh, which borders China, landslides have wiped out several roads.

At least seven districts in the central and eastern parts of the state have been completely cut off by landslides and flash floods.

In Bangladesh, downstream from India, nearly 1.8 million people have been impacted by the floods, the nation’s disaster management agency said.

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