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story.lead_photo.caption Soldiers enter a guard post Sunday in Paju, South Korea, near the border with North Korea. (AP/Ahn Young-joon)

SEOUL, South Korea -- North and South Korean troops exchanged fire along their tense border Sunday, the South's military said, the first such incident since the rivals took unprecedented steps to lower front-line animosities in 2018.

Violent confrontations have occasionally occurred along the border, the world's most heavily fortified. While Sunday's incident is a reminder of persistent tensions, it didn't cause any known casualties on either side and is unlikely to escalate, observers said.

The Joint Chiefs of Staff in Seoul said North Korean troops fired several bullets at a South Korean guard post inside the border zone. South Korea responded with a total of 20 rounds of warning shots on two occasions before issuing a warning broadcast, it said.

South Korea suffered no casualties, the military said. Defense officials said it's also unlikely that North Korea had any casualties, since the South Korean warning shots were fired at uninhabited North Korean territory. The North's official Korean Central News Agency did not immediately report about the incident.

A preliminary South Korean analysis showed that North Korea's firing was probably not a calculated provocation, though Seoul will continue examining whether there was any motivation, a South Korean defense official said. He spoke on condition of anonymity, citing department rules.

Secretary of State Mike Pompeo also said it was believed that North Korea's firing was not intentional.

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

Farming activities around the North Korean area where the firing occurred continued throughout Sunday, and North Korea's military didn't display any suspicious activities after the gunfire, the South Korean defense official said. He said there was thick fog in the area at the time of the incident.

Later Sunday, South Korea sent a message to North Korea to try to avoid an escalation, but the North did not immediately reply, according to South Korea's military.

The exchange of fire came a day after North Korea broadcast video of its leader, Kim Jong Un, reappearing in public after a 20-day absence amid intense speculation about his health.

North Korea said Kim attended Friday's ceremony marking the completion of a fertilizer factory near Pyongyang along with senior officials. State TV showed him smiling and walking around factory facilities.

The Korean Peninsula remains split along the 155-mile-long, 2½-mile-wide border called the Demilitarized Zone. It was originally created as a buffer after the end of the 1950-53 Korean War. But despite its name, 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.

The last time there was gunfire along the border was in 2017, when North Korean soldiers sprayed bullets at a colleague fleeing to South Korea. The defector was hit five times, but survived and is now living in South Korea. South Korea didn't return fire.

A Section on 05/04/2020

Print Headline: Gunshots fired at Korean border

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