S Korea starts live-fire drills

2010-12-06 09:01

Seoul - South Korea's military on Monday began a major live-fire exercise amid high tensions following North Korea's deadly bombardment of a border island last month.

The Joint Chiefs of Staff (JCS) said the firing exercises by warships or land artillery units had started in 29 locations, including off one of five frontline islands near the disputed Yellow Sea border with the North.

The North on November 23 killed two civilians and two marines and destroyed 29 homes in an artillery attack on Yeonpyeong Island, sending regional tensions soaring.

It said it was retaliating for a South Korean artillery drill which had lobbed some shells into waters it claims as its territory.

Yeonpyeong has been excluded from this week's drill, but firing will take place off Daecheong Island, 80km to the west.

It was unclear whether the firing would be into waters claimed by the North, which refuses to accept the Northern Limit Line (NLL) sea boundary drawn by United Nations forces after the 1950-53 war.

Vow to hit back

Pyongyang on Sunday described the five-day drill as an attempt to trigger a war.

"The drills carried out south of the NLL, in our sea territory, are a fair and just exercise, and we will carry out the drills no matter what," a JCS spokesperson quoted new Defence Minister Kim Kwan-Jin as saying.

Kim last week vowed to hit back with air strikes should the North stage a new attack. The South's artillery fired back on November 23 at the North's artillery units but its response was widely seen as weak and ineffective.

South Korea and the United States last week staged their biggest-ever naval exercise off the peninsula as a warning to the North. The largest ever US-Japan war games separately got under way on Friday.

The North's bombardment, the first of civilian areas in the South since the war, came less than two weeks after it put a new and apparently operational uranium enrichment plant on show to US visitors.

The North says the plant is for peaceful purposes. But US experts and officials say it could easily be reconfigured to make weapons-grade uranium to supplement an existing plutonium stockpile.

Analysts say the display of nuclear prowess and the bombardment are designed to burnish the military credentials of Kim Jong Un, son of leader Kim Jong Il and his heir apparent.

Cool response to talks proposal

They say the North also appears to be pressuring the United States and other parties to restart nuclear negotiations and aid.

The chief diplomats of the United States, South Korea and Japan will meet on Monday to forge a strategy for dealing with the North following the latest crisis.

All three nations have responded coolly to a proposal by China, the North's sole major ally, for an emergency meeting of envoys to stalled six-nation nuclear disarmament talks.

US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton will hold two hours of talks with foreign ministers Kim Sung-Hwan of South Korea and Seiji Maehara, the State Department said.

In addition to the Yeonpyeong attack, Maehara has said they will discuss North Korea's uranium enrichment and other nuclear developments.

China has not publicly condemned its ally for the shelling attack, but is pushing to restart the six-party talks it has hosted since 2003. These also group the two Koreas, the United States, Russia and Japan but have been stalled for the past two years.

Washington, Seoul and Tokyo oppose a return to the negotiations until Pyongyang shows it is serious about nuclear disarmament.