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Seoul eases military alert as tension abates

By Shin Hyon-hee
South Korea has lifted its highest-level military readiness posture as more signs were detected of frontline North Korean forces cranking back into their bases in the wake of cross-border dialogue, military officials here said Wednesday.
The decision coincides with the North’s ongoing reinstatement of submarines, air cushion vehicles, 76.2-milimeter artillery guns and other firearms and gunners. Seoul, in turn, ceased its anti-Pyongyang loudspeaker broadcasts along the Military Demarcation Line on Tuesday.
In particular, nearly half of the 50 underwater vehicles, which were presumed to have had left their bases over the past week and thus made it difficult for the South to locate, appear to have returned, a military source noted. The number of absent vessels was unprecedented, amounting to 70 percent of the communist state’s submarine fleet, officials have said.
“As the North is taking demilitarization steps since it revoked the ‘quasi-state of war,’ we are adjusting our readiness in accordance with the changing levels of the North’s threats,” a Joint Chiefs of Staff official told reporters, asking anonymity due to the sensitivity of the issue.
“Various movements are taking place chiefly in the frontline areas.”
With the South Korea-U.S. joint annual Ulchi Freedom Guardian exercise underway, however, the North will likely maintain a slightly higher alert than usual at least until its conclusion on Friday, the official noted.
The allies were also expected to downgrade their current Watch Condition level 2 shortly, based on the North’s activities.
“The North typically adopts increased readiness during the UFG compared with normal time as does the South reciprocally, so we need to wait and see until it’s finished,” he added.
In line with the easing tension, North Korean guards patrolling the Joint Security Area within the border village of Panmunjeom have begun carrying handguns again instead of rifles, sources said.
The latest signs of de-escalation followed an agreement resulted from grueling negotiations from Saturday to early Tuesday, which pulled back the sides from the brink of armed clash.
Since the two Koreas exchanged fire last week amid heightened rows over a recent land mine attack in the Demilitarized Zone by the North and ensuing loudspeaker broadcasts by the South, the Kim Jong-un regime had declared the semi-war state and ratcheted up military threats.
In a report submitted to the National Assembly on Wednesday, Seoul’s Defense Ministry pledged to take on more offensive DMZ operations and fine-tune operational readiness to better fend off Pyongyang’s surprise provocations, while making preparations for potential inter-Korean military talks and providing military support for future government-level exchanges.
(heeshin@heraldcorp.com)
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