outh Korea said on Sunday that it will proceed with joint live-fire artillery drills on Monday near the disputed western sea border as planned, despite North Korea’s warning of military retaliation. The exercises are to take place amid high tension on the Korean peninsula following the death of North Korean leader Kim Jong Il, and just days before the US and North Korea are due for talks in Beijing on the North’s nuclear weapons programme.
The decision came hours after North Korea issued a statement on Sunday warning all civilians living or working on islands near the disputed western sea border to evacuate before the drills start.
South Korean military officials notified the North of the planned exercises through representatives at the truce village of Panmunjom on Sunday. Hours later, the North’s military vowed “merciless retaliatory strikes” if any shells land in territorial waters claimed by North Korea.
An official at Seoul’s Joint Chiefs of Staff said, “We will conduct the exercise as scheduled… There is no unusual move in the North’s military.” Another official added that South Korea will “resolutely react” to any provocation by the North.
The North’s Korean Central News Agency said, “Once the group of traitors starts a reckless military provocation in those waters, the Korean People’s Army will promptly make merciless retaliatory strikes.” It also warned the South not to “forget the lesson” of its bombardment of Yeonpyeong Island.
Early Monday, Pyongyang reiterated its threats of possible reprisals. An official body called the Committee for the Peaceful Reunification of Korea stated, “If the puppet warmongers preempt reckless firing despite our warning, they will not escape punishment thousands-fold severer than the past Yeonpyeong Island shelling.”
The upcoming drills are designed to counter North Korean submarines off South Korea’s west coast. South Korea says the drill is a regular exercise intended to maintain combat-readiness in the tense border area.
South Korean officials said residents of the frontline islands would be advised to relocate to safe zones before the firing begins.
Drills take place amid high inter-Korean tensions, before US-North Korea meeting
Pyongyang has often belligerently reacted to the South Korea drills with threats of retaliation, but since the November 2010 incident at Yeonpyeong island there have not been any fatal incidents. That drill triggered a North Korean artillery bombardment that killed four South Koreans, with Pyongyang accusing Seoul of provoking the attack by staging drills in its claimed territorial waters.
The North has taken a confrontational tone towards South Korea since Kim Jong Un assumed power following the demise of his father Kim Jong Il in 17 December. North Korea often issues antagonistic rhetoric against South Korea, but the latest threat comes amid high inter-Korea tensions.
The North’s warning and the South’s decision to continue with military drills came just days before North Korea and US officials are to meet in Beijing for talks regarding the North’s nuclear weapons programme, the first such US-North Korea contact since Kim Jong Il’s death.
Report: S. Korea holds firing drill despite N. Korea threat [Channel News Asia, 20 Feb 2012]
Report: Seoul snubs NK’s warning of strikes for drills [Korea Times, 19 Feb 2012]
Report: North Korea Warns South Over Drills [Wall Street Journal, 19 Feb 2012]