Aswat Asharq Al-Awsat :

Aswat Asharq Al-Awsat : How Did North Korean Soldiers Wander Across the World’s Most Heavily Guarded Border? 

Barricades are placed near the Unification Bridge, which leads to the Panmunjom in the Demilitarized Zone in Paju, South Korea, Tuesday, June 11, 2024. (AP)
Barricades are placed near the Unification Bridge, which leads to the Panmunjom in the Demilitarized Zone in Paju, South Korea, Tuesday, June 11, 2024. (AP)
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How Did North Korean Soldiers Wander Across the World’s Most Heavily Guarded Border? 

Barricades are placed near the Unification Bridge, which leads to the Panmunjom in the Demilitarized Zone in Paju, South Korea, Tuesday, June 11, 2024. (AP)
Barricades are placed near the Unification Bridge, which leads to the Panmunjom in the Demilitarized Zone in Paju, South Korea, Tuesday, June 11, 2024. (AP)

Don’t believe the name: The Demilitarized Zone between the two rival Koreas might be the most heavily armed place on earth. Two million mines, barbed wire fences, tank traps and tens of thousands of troops from both countries patrol a divided swath of land 248 kilometers (154 miles) long and 4 kilometers (2.5 miles) wide.

So how, on the eve of Russian President Vladimir Putin’s summit Wednesday with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un, did as many as 30 North Korean soldiers wander over the line separating North from South, causing South Korea to fire warning shots before the North Koreans withdrew?

The short answer appears to be shrubbery: Because of an overgrowth of foliage, the North Koreans may not have seen the signs marking the thin military demarcation line that divides the DMZ into northern and southern sides.

But, more deeply, it can also be understood in light of the long, often violent history of the unique border set up after the 1950-53 Korean War. It ended with an armistice, instead of a peace treaty, leaving the Korean Peninsula divided, and technically still in a state of war.

Here's a look at the events surrounding the incursion:

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What happened? On Tuesday, South Korean troops broadcast warnings and fired warning shots to turn back North Korean soldiers — somewhere between 20 to 30 — who briefly crossed the demarcation line in the DMZ.

The North Koreans, who had been doing construction work in the area, immediately retreated, and the South’s military didn’t spot any suspicious activity after that, the Joint Chiefs of Staff in Seoul said.

It was the second such incident in two weeks.

Neither incursion was an invasion, or even a maneuver meant to test the South’s defenses, Seoul says, but more likely an accident.

When North Korean soldiers briefly crossed a different part of the line on June 11, the same scenario played out: Warning shots from the South; a North Korean withdrawal.

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What does the demarcation line look like? The demarcation line, in many parts of the DMZ, is simply a sign mounted on a stick or a slice of concrete.

People have stepped across it before, under very special circumstances, and usually at the border village of Panmunjom. Former US President Donald Trump walked across with Kim Jong Un. Last year an American soldier facing possible military discipline dashed over the line to the North.

Outside of Panmunjom, much of the DMZ is wilderness, but it is heavily monitored on both sides. And while the demarcation line may be easily crossed, it is very difficult to do so without being spotted immediately.

The southern side of the land border is protected not only by thousands of soldiers, guns and mines, but also by a dense network of cameras, motion sensors and other high-tech surveillance equipment. Breaches are very rare and are usually detected quickly. Defections from the North are also unusual along the North-South land border, though they have happened with frequency along the porous China-North Korea border and occasionally in the Yellow Sea.

The North’s accidental intrusions this month may have been caused by a sudden jump in North Korean troops fortifying their side of the border.

Because overgrown trees and plants may have been obscuring the signs marking the demarcation line, Seoul says, the North Korean troops may have stepped over the line without knowing it.

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Why are so many North Koreans working in the DMZ? Relations between the rival Koreas are worse now than in many years.

Recent weeks have seen a tit-for-tat standoff that has resulted in Cold War-style psychological warfare. Both sides have said they are no longer bound by their landmark military agreement in 2018 to reduce tensions.

The North Koreans along the border, Seoul says, have been installing what appear to be anti-tank barriers, reinforcing roads and planting land mines, even as mine explosions have killed or wounded an unspecified number of North Korean soldiers.

The construction started around April and may be an attempt to curb North Koreans trying to defect to the South, according to Seoul's military.

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Could it happen again? Possibly, especially if the North Korean construction continues along the demarcation line.

But both sides appear intent on containing their animosities to the psychological warfare they’re engaging in.

Still, there are worries that the hostilities are pushing them closer to a direct military clash. The Koreas have had no meaningful talks for years and could find it difficult to set up dialogue as tensions rise over the North’s development of nuclear-capable weapons.

Some analysts say the Koreas’ poorly marked western sea boundary — site of skirmishes and attacks in past years — is more likely to be a crisis point than the land border.

Kim, during a fiery speech in January, reiterated that his country does not recognize the Northern Limit Line in the Yellow Sea, which was drawn up by the US-led UN Command at the end of the war. North Korea insists on a boundary that encroaches deeply into South Korea-controlled waters.

While the huge military presence on both sides of the DMZ means that years sometimes pass without incident, violence can quickly erupt. Two American Army officers were axed to death in 1976 by North Korean soldiers, for instance.



Aswat Asharq Al-Awsat : Biden's Withdrawal Injects Uncertainty Into Wars, Trade Disputes and Other Foreign Policy Challenges

FILE - President Joe Biden speaks at a news conference July 11, 2024, in Washington. (AP Photo/Jacquelyn Martin, File)
FILE - President Joe Biden speaks at a news conference July 11, 2024, in Washington. (AP Photo/Jacquelyn Martin, File)
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Biden's Withdrawal Injects Uncertainty Into Wars, Trade Disputes and Other Foreign Policy Challenges

FILE - President Joe Biden speaks at a news conference July 11, 2024, in Washington. (AP Photo/Jacquelyn Martin, File)
FILE - President Joe Biden speaks at a news conference July 11, 2024, in Washington. (AP Photo/Jacquelyn Martin, File)

Joe Biden's withdrawal from the US presidential race injects greater uncertainty into the world at a time when Western leaders are grappling with wars in Ukraine and Gaza, a more assertive China in Asia and the rise of the far-right in Europe.
During a five-decade career in politics, Biden developed extensive personal relationships with multiple foreign leaders that none of the potential replacements on the Democratic ticket can match. After his announcement, messages of support and gratitude for his years of service poured in from near and far, said The Associated Press.
The scope of foreign policy challenges facing the next US president makes clear how consequential what happens in Washington is for the rest of the planet. Here's a look at some of them.
ISRAEL With Vice President Kamala Harris being eyed as a potential replacement for Biden, Israelis on Sunday scrambled to understand what her candidacy would mean for their country as it confronts increasing global isolation over its military campaign against Hamas.
Israel’s left-wing Haaretz daily newspaper ran a story scrutinizing Harris’ record of support for Israel, pointing to her reputation as Biden’s “bad cop" who has vocally admonished Israel for its offensive in Gaza. In recent months, she has gone further than Biden in calling for a cease-fire, denouncing Israel's invasion of Rafah and expressing horror over the civilian death toll in Gaza.
“With Biden leaving, Israel has lost perhaps the last Zionist president,” said Alon Pinkas, a former Israeli consul general in New York. “A new Democratic candidate will upend the dynamic.”
Biden's staunch defense of Israel since Hamas' Oct. 7 attack has its roots in his half-century of support for the country as a senator, vice president, then president. Israeli Defense Minister Yoav Gallant thanked Biden for his “unwavering support of Israel over the years.”
“Your steadfast backing, especially during the war, has been invaluable,” Gallant wrote on X.
Israeli President Isaac Herzog praised Biden as a “symbol of the unbreakable bond between our two peoples" and a “true ally of the Jewish people.” There was no immediate reaction from Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, an ally of former President Donald Trump whose history of cordial relations with Biden has come under strain during the Israel-Hamas war.
UKRAINE Any Democratic candidate would likely continue Biden’s legacy of staunch military support for Ukraine. But frustration with the Biden administration has grown in Ukraine and Europe over the slow pace of US aid and restrictions on the use of Western weapons.
“Most Europeans realize that Ukraine is increasingly going to be their burden,” said Sudha David-Wilp, director of the Berlin office of the German Marshall Fund, a research institute. “Everyone is trying to get ready for all the possible outcomes.”
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy said on X that he respected the “tough but strong decision” by Biden to drop out of the campaign, and he thanked Biden for his help “in preventing (Russian President Vladimir) Putin from occupying our country.”
Trump has promised to end Russia's war on Ukraine in one day if he is elected — a prospect that has raised fears in Ukraine that Russia might be allowed to keep the territory it occupies.
Trump's vice presidential pick, Ohio Sen. JD Vance, is among Congress’ most vocal opponents of US aid for Ukraine and has further raised the stakes for Kyiv.
Russia, meanwhile, dismissed the importance of the race, insisting that no matter what happened, Moscow would press on in Ukraine.
“We need to pay attention,” Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov was quoted as saying by a pro-Russian tabloid. “We need to watch what will happen and do our own thing."
CHINA In recent months, both Biden and Trump have tried to show voters who can best stand up to Beijing’s growing military strength and belligerence and protect US businesses and workers from low-priced Chinese imports. Biden has hiked tariffs on electric vehicles from China, and Trump has promised to implement tariffs of 60% on all Chinese products.
Trump’s “America First” doctrine exacerbated tensions with Beijing. But disputes with the geopolitical rival and economic colossus over wars, trade, technology and security continued into Biden's term.
China's official reaction to the US presidential race has been careful. The official Xinhua news agency treated the story of Biden’s decision as relatively minor. The editor of the party-run Global Times newspaper, Hu Xijin, downplayed the impact of Biden's withdrawal.
“Whoever becomes the presidential candidate of the Democratic Party may be the same," he wrote on X. “Voters are divided into two groups, Trump voters and Trump haters.”
IRAN With Iran's proxies across the Middle East increasingly entangled in the Israel-Hamas war, the US confronts a region in disarray.
Yemen's Iran-backed Houthis struck Tel Aviv for the first time last week, prompting retaliatory Israeli strikes inside war-torn Yemen. Simmering tensions and cross-border attacks between Lebanon’s Iran-backed Hezbollah militant group and the Israeli military have raised fears of an all-out regional conflagration.
Hamas, which also receives support from Iran, continues to fight Israel even nine months into a war that has killed 38,000 Palestinians and displaced over 80% of Gaza's population.
The US and its allies have accused Iran of expanding its nuclear program and enriching uranium to an unprecedented 60% level, near-weapons-grade levels.
After then-President Trump in 2018 withdrew from Tehran’s landmark nuclear deal with world powers, Biden said he wanted to reverse his predecessor's hawkish anti-Iran stance. But the Biden administration has maintained severe economic sanctions against Iran and overseen failed attempts to renegotiate the agreement.
The sudden death of Ebrahim Raisi — the supreme leader's hard-line protege — in a helicopter crash vaulted a new reformist to the presidency in Iran, generating new opportunities and risks. Masoud Pezeshkian has said he wants to help Iran open up to the world but has maintained a defiant tone against the US.
EUROPE AND NATO Many Europeans were happy to see Trump go after his years of disparaging the European Union and undermining NATO. Trump's seemingly dismissive attitude toward European allies in last month's presidential debate did nothing to assuage those concerns.
Biden, on the other hand, has supported close American relations with bloc leaders.
That closeness was on stark display after Biden's decision to bow out of the race. Polish Prime Minister Donald Tusk called his choice “probably the most difficult one in your life.” The newly installed British prime minister, Keir Starmer, said he respected Biden’s “decision based on what he believes is in the best interests of the American people.”
There was also an outpouring of affection from Irish Prime Minister Simon Harris, who called Biden a “proud American with an Irish soul."
The question of whether NATO can maintain its momentum in supporting Ukraine and checking the ambitions of other authoritarian states hangs in the balance of this presidential election, analysts say.
“They don't want to see Donald Trump as president. So there's quite a bit of relief but also quite a bit of nervousness" about Biden's decision to drop out, said Jeremy Shapiro, research director of the European Council on Foreign Relations. “Like many in the United States, but perhaps more so, they are really quite confused.”
MEXICO The close relationship between Mexico and the US has been marked in recent years by disagreements over trade, energy and climate change. Since President Andrés Manuel López Obrador took power in 2018, both countries have found common ground on the issue of migration – with Mexico making it more difficult for migrants to cross its country to the US border and the US not pressing on other issues.
The López Obrador administration kept that policy while Trump was president and continued it into Biden's term.
On Friday, Mexico’s president called Trump “a friend” and said he would write to him to warn him against pledging to close the border or blaming migrants for bringing drugs into the United States.
“I am going to prove to him that migrants don’t carry drugs to the United States,” he said, adding that “closing the border won’t solve anything, and anyway, it can’t be done.”