Image Source : REUTERS North Korean people work on a military fence near their guard post at the inter-Korean border.

Pyongyang: North Korea is building parts of a new ‘wall’ in several places near its border with South Korea as tensions rise between the two neighbouring countries, BBC reported citing satellite images. BBC Verify analysed the images showing that land inside the demilitarised zone (DMZ) appears to have been cleared, which could be a violation of the 2018 truce agreements between the Koreas.

Experts say the recent activity is “unusual” at the DMZ, a four km-wide buffer zone between the two Koreas which is split in two, with each side controlled by the respective nations. “At this point, we can only speculate that North Korea is looking to strengthen its military presence and fortifications along the border,” says Shreyas Reddy, a correspondent at the Seoul-based specialist site NK News

Images show at least three sections of the “wall” where barriers have been erected near the zone, covering 1 km close to the eastern side of the border. The exact date of the construction is unclear due to a lack of previous high-resolution imagery in the area. “My personal assessment is that this is the first time they’ve ever built a barrier in the sense of separating places from each other,” Dr Uk Yang, a military and defence expert at Seoul’s Asan Institute for Policy Studies told BBC.

Since when has North Korea been constructing walls?

According to Dr Yang, North Korea had set up anti-tank walls back in the 1990s to deter the advance of military tanks in case a conflict resurged again. However, this time Pyongyang has been setting up walls that are at least 2-3 km high, which indicate that they are intended to divide an area. 

Moreover, an official from South Korea’s Joint Chiefs of Staff (JCS) said in a recent briefing that the military had identified ongoing activity related to the “reinforcement of tactical roads, the laying of mines and the clearing of wasteland”. The land clearing can have many purposes, including monitoring military activities in South Korea and spotting defectors.

A previous report by Reuters claimed that North Korea had spent most of the COVID-19 pandemic building hundreds of kilometres of new or upgraded border fences, walls and guard posts, enabling it to tighten the flow of information and goods into the country, keep foreign elements out and its people in. In a speech declaring victory over COVID-19 in 2022, North Korean leader Kim Jong Un had ordered officials to “ensure perfection” of an “overall multiple blockade wall in the border, frontline and coast areas and in the seas and air”.

What will happen after the ‘wall’ is constructed?

The sealing of the border is likely to have lasting effects, including for North Korea’s nascent mercantile class and in the towns where thriving informal trade previously offered many people, particularly women, a chance to make their own way, said Benjamin Katzeff Silberstein, a non-resident fellow at the US-based Stimson Center who researches North Korea’s economy.

“It is unusual to build structures in the DMZ and may be a violation of the armistice without prior consultation,” according to Victor Cha, the senior vice president for Asia and Korea at the Centre for Strategic and International Studies. The Korean War ended in 1953 with an armistice, in which both sides pledged not to “execute any hostile act within, from, or against the demilitarised zone”.

The wall can lead to North Korean authorities tightening international trade, and exerting influence over the military and other party members who may pose a threat to the leadership. The new images come just days after South Korean forces fired warning shots for the second time this month at North Korean soldiers who briefly crossed the military demarcation line.

Escalating inter-Korean tensions

Tensions on the Korean peninsula have increased since the North last year scrapped a 2018 pact aimed at de-escalating tensions near the military border drawn up under a truce ending the 1950-53 Korean War and then labelled the South “enemy No. 1”. Pyongyang says it has been forced to boost its nuclear and missile programs to deal with US-led hostilities, viewing the joint drills with Seoul as an invasion rehearsal.

At the beginning of this year, Kim Jong Un announced that his country would no longer pursue reunification with the South. Since then, the North has also started to remove symbols representing the unity of the two countries – such as demolishing monuments and erasing references to reunification on government websites. The Koreas also have engaged in Cold War-style psychological warfare that involved North Korea dropping tons of trash on the South with balloons, and the South broadcasting anti-North Korean propaganda with its loudspeakers.

After this “unprecedented” step, Pyongyang has increased weapons testing while Seoul has ramped up military drills with the United States. Kim asserted that now is the time to be more prepared for war than ever due to unstable geopolitical situations surrounding his country. He told the staff and students of a university that “if the enemy opts for a military confrontation with the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK), the DPRK will deal a death blow to the enemy without hesitation by mobilising all means in its possession”. 

“North Korea is not even pretending to want to negotiate with the United States or South Korea, and has rebuffed the recent attempts by Japan to engage in talks,” says Dr Edward Howell, Korean Peninsula researcher at Oxford. “With North Korea’s warming relations with Russia, we should not be surprised if inter-Korean provocations increase this year.”

(with Reuters inputs)

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