N Korea denies role in landmine attack

SEOUL - North Korea on Friday denied it was behind a series of mine blasts earlier this month that maimed two South Korean soldiers and triggered a spike in cross-border tensions.

The powerful National Defence Commission (NDC) said South Korean accusations that its soldiers had sneaked across the border and planted the mines along a known patrol route was "absurd".

"If our army really needed to achieve a military purpose, we would have used strong firearms, not three mines," the commission said in a statement carried by the North's official KCNA news agency.

The mines were tripped by a South Korean border patrol on August 4 in the demilitarised zone (DMZ) - a buffer zone stretching two kilometres on either side of the actual frontier line dividing the two Koreas.

One soldier underwent a double leg amputation, while another lost a single leg.

An investigation by South Korea and the US-led UN Command which monitors the ceasefire that ended the 1950-53 Korean War concluded that the devices were North Korean "wooden box" mines.

It also said the mines were recently laid, ruling out the possibility that they were old units moved by shifting soil of flood waters.

A million mines

More than a million mines are believed to have been planted along the inter-Korean border - many of them air-dropped in the 1960s at the height of a Cold War confrontation with the North.

Because the 1953 ceasefire was never ratified by a peace treaty, the two Koreas remain technically at war.

In what was the North's first comment on the incident, the NDC suggested the mines were most likely South Korean devices that had been displaced.

Accusing Seoul of seeking to slander North Korea, the commission challenged the South Korean military to provide video evidence to back up its charges.

"If they cannot, they should not speak of provocations by the DPRK," it said, using the official acronym for North Korea.

The denial was formally relayed to South Korea via a military hotline, according to a spokesman for the South's Joint Chiefs of Staff.

The spokesman said the Joint Chiefs had responded that the blasts were a "clear provocation" for which the North should accept full responsibility.

South Korea has vowed the North will pay a "harsh price" and has already resumed high-decibel propaganda broadcasts across the border, using batteries of loudspeakers that had lain silent for more than a decade.

Officials in the South say restarting the broadcasts is only the "first step" in a series of retaliatory measures.

Soaring tensions

The mine blasts came as cross-border tensions were already heating up ahead of a two-week long South Korea-US wargame that kicks off Monday and simulates an invasion by North Korea.

The North has labelled the annual "Ulchi Freedom" exercise a "declaration of war" and threatened retaliatory strikes against Seoul and the White House.

Amid the rhetorical back and forth, both Koreas are preparing to commemorate the 70th anniversary on Saturday of the 1945 liberation of the Korean peninsula from Japanese rule.

Earlier this year, there had been hopes that the anniversary might be an opportunity for some sort of rapprochement, but efforts to organise a joint commemoration went nowhere.

Pyongyang refused to consider talks because of Seoul's refusal to cancel its military drills with the United States.

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