South Korea announced new land and sea military exercises on Wednesday, including its largest-ever live-fire drill near North Korea, just as tension on the peninsula was beginning to ease after Pyongyang’s attack on a southern island.
The firing drills planned for Thursday near the Koreas’ heavily armed land border signaled that South Korea is willing to risk further escalating tensions with North Korea, which shelled a southern island off the western coast on Nov. 23 and stirred up a war-like atmosphere.
The attack, which killed four people, was portrayed by Pyongyang as a retaliation for southern military exercises on Yeonpyeong island that day.
The new land drill will involve three dozen mobile artillery guns, six fighter jets, multiple launch rocket systems and 800 troops in what would be the largest number of personnel in a single peace-time exercise.
South Korea has conducted 47 similar military drills this year, and it scheduled one more exercise for Thursday in response to the North Korean attack, an army officer told The Associated Press on condition of anonymity. Thursday’s drill will be the biggest wintertime joint firing exercise that South Korea’s army and air force have staged, an army statement said.
“We will completely punish the enemy if it provokes us again like the shelling of Yeonpyeong Island,” Brig. Gen. Ju Eun-sik, chief of the army’s 1st armored brigade, said separately.
The scale of the drill and the timing, coming right after the tensely staged a live-fire exercise on Monday, indicates South Korea’s conservative President Lee Myung-bak sees more political mileage in taking a tough military stance rather than reverting to dialogue.
Lee’s government was heavily criticized at home for a perceived weak response to North Korea’s shelling of the southern island of Yeonpyeong last month.
There was no immediate reaction from North Korea. State news agency KCNA, which regularly denounces the South, United States and Japan, made no mention of the drills, although it carried an article lambasting a U.S. lawmaker critical of Pyongyang as “human scum” and a “political illiterate.”
South Korea is also holding three days of live-firing naval drills off the peninsula’s east coast starting on Wednesday, a media official at the Defense Ministry said.
He would not provide details. Yonhap news agency said the drills were taking place 60 miles south of the maritime border with North Korea and involved at least six naval vessels.
North Korea this week offered to re-admit U.N. inspectors concerned about its nuclear-weapon program, leading to speculation of a resumption of six-party disarmament talks and a general sense of relief that the crisis had passed.
“The drills are an indication that (the South) is aiming to keep tensions very high, partly because of the possibility of the North striking back,” said Kim Yong-hyun of Dongguk University.
“Dialogue is clearly not high on the agenda. It’s still very much in the mode of how they can respond to incidents like the one on Yeonpyeong and to show that response in the future will be overwhelming.”
‘A show of force’
The South Korean Army is making no secret that the drill is aimed at displaying its firepower to its neighbor.
“Yes, it will be a show of force against that,” an army officer said, when asked if the shelling of Yeonpyeong last month was a factor in the land drill’s planning.
He said similar drills had been staged previously on more than 50 occasions, but the scale this time was unprecedented.
“The scale of mechanized assets taking place is enormous. When we would normally have six K-9 mechanized artillery, we’ll have 36. We’ll have the F-15 jets firing. We’ll have choppers. You can say most of the mechanized assets taking part will be firing live ammunition.”
It will take place in the Pocheon region, less than 30 miles north of downtown Seoul.
The latest crisis peaked when North Korea shelled Yeonpyeong, just south of the disputed maritime border, killing four people — including two civilians — in the worst attack on South Korean territory since the end of the civil war in 1953.
The South carried out live-fire drills on Yeonpyeong on Monday, which provoked only a verbal reaction from the North. It had vowed to strike back if the South went ahead with the drills, prompting fears of all-out war.
China, North Korea’s only major ally, has urged dialogue to resolve the crisis and urged Pyongyang to follow through on its offer to allow U.N. inspectors into the country.
The Chinese Foreign Ministry had no immediate comment on the planned drill.
Analysts say the North is unlikely to undertake another hostile act like this year’s attack on South Korea’s Cheonan warship, blamed on the North by the United States and the South, and the Yeonpyeong shelling, at least in the near term.
Its most likely next move would be to conduct live-fire artillery drills or possibly a short-range missile test into its waters off the west coast.
Analysts have said they believe its recent military acts were aimed at bolstering the ruling family as ailing leader Kim Jong-il grooms his youngest son, Kim Jong-un, as his successor.
“North Korea likes to step toward the brink and then away from it again,” said Brian Myers, an expert on the North at South Korea’s Dongseo University.
“The news from Pyongyang in the past few days indicates that the Kim Jong-il regime is now in the backing-off part of its usual cycle.”
He said the North probably did not expect the South to go through with live-fire exercises on Monday.
“If it had, it would not have made such loud threats of reprisal in its domestic media. After the exercises took place, the Kim regime had to tell its own people that the South’s ‘provocation’ was not worth responding to, a flip-flop it cannot afford to repeat in just a few days. I don’t expect the North to be quite as vocal about the next round of exercises.”
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