The North has made similar claims before, and the huge numbers of soldiers and military equipment stationed along the Koreas' tense border mean the area is always essentially in a “quasi-state of war.” Still, the declaration, following South Korea's firing of dozens of shells across the border after the North lobbed several rounds toward the South, signals a worrying development.
The North's official Korean Central News Agency reported Friday that leader Kim Jong Un ordered at an emergency military meeting that his troops would “enter a wartime state” and be fully ready for any military operations at any time after Friday at 5 p.m. local time.
Seoul said the North fired rounds Thursday across the Demilitarized Zone (DMZ) to back up an earlier threat to attack South Korean border loudspeakers that have started broadcasting anti-Pyongyang propaganda after an 11-year lull. Pyongyang, which denies firing at the South, later said the South Korean shells landed near four military posts but caused no injuries. No one was reported injured in the South, although hundreds of people who live in frontline towns were evacuated.
The loudspeaker broadcasts began after South Korea accused the North of planting land mines that maimed two South Korean soldiers earlier this month.
“Commanders of the [North] Korean People's Army were hastily dispatched to the front-line troops to command military operations to destroy psychological warfare tools if the enemy does not stop the propaganda broadcast within 48 hours and prepare against the enemy's possible counteractions,” South Korea's Yonhap News Agency quoted North Korean broadcaster Korean Central Television as reporting.
A South Korean military official said the broadcasts would continue, and North Korea has also restarted its own propaganda broadcasts.
“The broadcast was so distorted at first that South Korean soldiers both inside the demilitarized zone and on the frontline couldn't figure out what the North Korean military was saying,” an unnamed South Korean military source told Seoul-based newspaper Chosun Ilbo.
Pyongyang is extremely sensitive to any criticism of Kim's government. Pyongyang worries that the critical broadcasts could weaken Kim's grip on absolute power, analysts say. Kim's family has ruled the North since its founding in 1948.
On Thursday afternoon, North Korea first fired a single round believed to be from an anti-aircraft gun, which landed in a South Korean border town, said Seoul.
About 20 minutes later, several more artillery shells fell on the southern side of the DMZ dividing the two Koreas. South Korea responded with dozens of 155-milimeter artillery rounds, according to South Korean defense officials.
The exchange stopped there, but the North's army warned in a message later Thursday that it would take further military action if South Korea didn't pull down the loudspeakers within 48 hours.
South Korea's military warned Friday that North Korea must refrain from engaging in “rash acts” or face strong punishment, according to South Korea's Yonhap news agency.
South Korea raised its military readiness to its highest level. Joint Chiefs of Staff spokesman Jeon Ha-kyu told a televised news conference that South Korea is ready to repel any additional provocation. Defense officials said South Korea will continue the loudspeaker broadcasts despite the threats.
The artillery exchange comes during another point of tensions between the Koreas: annual U.S.-South Korean military drills that North Korea calls an invasion rehearsal. Seoul and Washington say the drills are defensive in nature.
South Korean President Park Geun-hye convened an emergency National Security Council meeting and ordered South Korea's military to “resolutely” deal with any provocation by North Korea.
In Washington, State Department spokesman John Kirby said the U.S. was worried by the North's firing into South Korea and closely monitoring the situation.
North Korea's army said recently in a statement that the South Korean propaganda broadcasts were a declaration of war and that if they were not immediately stopped “an all-out military action of justice” would ensue. Pyongyang says that Seoul fabricated its evidence on the land mines and demanded video proof.
The Koreas' mine-strewn DMZ is a legacy of the 1950-53 Korean War, which ended with an armistice, not a peace treaty, leaving the Korean Peninsula still technically in a state of war. About 28,500 U.S. soldiers are deployed in South Korea to deter potential aggression from North Korea.
Al Jazeera and wire services