South Korea responded to shots fired from across the DMZ but no casualties were reported.

A South Korean army truck passes by a military post guard in Paju, near the border with North Korea, South Korea, Tuesday, April 21, 2020
A South Korean army truck passes by a military post guard in Paju, near the border with North Korea, South Korea, Tuesday, April 21, 2020 (Reuters)

Shots fired by North Korea across its border with South Korea were likely "accidental," US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said on Sunday as speculation continues to swirl about the health of North Korean leader Kim Jong-un.

North and South Korea on Saturday exchanged gunfire around a rural guard post, raising tension a day after North Korean state media showed Kim visiting a factory, the first report of him making a public appearance since April 11.

South Korea responded to shots fired from across the DMZ but no casualties were reported.

"We think those are accidental. South Koreans did return fire. So far as we can tell, there was no loss of life on either side," Pompeo said on ABC This Week.

Pompeo declined to discuss whether he knows whether Kim has been gravely ill over the last few weeks - which ratcheted up speculation as Kim missed a celebration of his late grandfather - but said based on video footage of him from state television at a recent event, "It looks like Chairman Kim is alive and well."

"We know there have been other extended periods of time where Chairman Kim's been out of public view as well, so it's not unprecedented," Pompeo said.

What has happened?

North and South Korean troops exchanged fire along their tense border on Sunday, the South’s military said, blaming North Korean soldiers for targeting a guard post.

The Joint Chiefs of Staff in Seoul said in a statement that North Korean troops fired several bullets at a South Korean guard post inside the heavily fortified border. 

South Korea fired two rounds in response after issuing a warning broadcast, it said.

South Korea suffered no casualties, the military said. 

It's unknown whether North Korea had any casualties. The North's official Korean Central News Agency hasn't reported about the incident.

It comes a day after North Korea broadcast images of leader Kim Jong-un reappearing in public after a 20-day absence amid intense speculation about his health.

KCNA said Kim attended Friday’s ceremony marking the completion of a fertiliser factory near Pyongyang along with senior officials. State TV showed Kim smiling and walking around factory facilities.

Kim earlier vanished from the public eye after presiding over a Politburo meeting of the ruling Workers' Party on April 11 to discuss the coronavirus. 

Speculation about his health began swirling after he missed an April 15 event commemorating the birthday of his grandfather and state founder, Kim Il-sung, something he had never done since inheriting power upon his father Kim Jong-il’s death in late 2011.

The Koreas are split along the 248-kilometre-long, four-kilometre-wide border called the Demilitarized Zone (DMZ) that was originally created as a buffer. 

But unlike its name, the DMZ is the world’s most heavily fortified border. An estimated 2 million mines are peppered inside and near the DMZ, which is also guarded by barbed wire fences, tank traps and combat troops on both sides.

In late 2018, the two Koreas began destroying some of their frontline guard posts and removing mines from the DMZ as part of steps to reduce tensions. 

But the efforts stalled amid a deadlock in nuclear negotiations between Kim and President Donald Trump meant to convince North Korea to give up its arsenal in exchange for lifting economic sanctions.

The last time there was gunfire along the border was in 2017, when North Korea sprayed bullets at a soldier fleeing to South Korea.

Source: Reuters