Some say exchange of shots at border not big news in South Korea

MANILA, Philippines — Some Catholics in South Korea said the exchange of shots Aug. 20 between North and South Korea along their common border was bigger news outside their country than locally.

People wave South Korea’s flags as they cheer before Pope Francis’ Aug. 16, 2014 arrival at a rehabilitation center for people with disabilities in Kkottongnae, South Korea. (CNS photo | Paul Haring)

Maryknoll Sr. Jean Maloney has lived in South Korea since the last year of the Korean War in 1953. She told Catholic News Service that when news like this is reported internationally, people who live in Seoul learn about it a day or two later.

She described to CNS the pattern of sporadic exchanges of fire between both sides, which have been in a truce, with no peace agreement, since the end of the war, as a “cat-and-mouse game.”

“It has this kind of tit-for-tat, ‘You did this, now we’re going to do that'” feel, she said.

Seoul-based Yonhap News Agency reported the shelling from both sides occurred in the afternoon of Aug. 20. That morning, North Korea had sent South Korea a letter demanding that the South stop propaganda broadcasts criticizing Pyongyang.

Yonhap reported South Korea started the broadcasts days after an Aug. 10 incident in which two South Korean soldiers were severely injured by a landmine in the 2.5-mile wide demilitarized zone between the two countries. The South blamed North Korea for planting it, but the North denied this.

A South Korean defense official said its military tracked a shell from the North aimed at an installation in Yeoncheon, north of Seoul. Then, he said, the North fired shells in that direction, and Seoul responded by lobbing dozens of shells back. North Korea reportedly did not take further military action.

There were no reported casualties from either side, and there was little damage according to the South Korean defense official, because the shells hit an open field. Officials said about 100 residents near the area were evacuated.

The evening of the exchange Issac Kwon, a Catholic young adult ministry leader based in Seoul, said he still had not been aware that it had occurred.

“(Here) it’s just in the back of the minds of the people,” Kwon told CNS. “Whereas, at the international (level), it’s really kind of sensitive.”

Kwon said his young adult group included the two injured soldiers in their prayer intentions for several days after the incident.

The shots fired came at a time that South Korea and the United States were having regular joint military exercises. The events draw tens of thousands of troops from both countries about four times a year, and they are seen by North Korea as a provocation.

Sr. Maloney said more than the exchange of shells, the bilateral exercises are a concern. She said it brings out “one-upmanship from both Koreas.”

“If they are really searching for peace, then that’s something to address,” she said. “Are these really necessary?”