By Keith B. Richburg
Sunday, November 28, 2010; A10
SEOUL - South Korea and the United States on Sunday began joint naval exercises that will include live fire and bombing drills as hermetic North Korea deployed missiles close to the Yellow Sea and warned that it will turn the region into "a merciless shower of fire" if its territory is violated.
South Korean officials said the exercises, called in response to the North's deadly artillery barrage last week of civilian-inhabited Yeonpyeong island, began when the USS George Washington aircraft carrier strike group entered the exercise zone, along with South Korean warships. Officials said the live firing would begin later in the day.
Tensions were high Sunday morning as the sound of North Korean artillery briefly led to an emergency evacuation for the remaining two dozen or so civilian residents on Yeonpyeong, though no shells landed on the island. The order came at 11:18 a.m. local time, according to Korea's Yonhap News Agency, quoting an official from South Korea's Joint Chiefs of Staff, and was lifted just before noon.
Yonhap quoted South Korean military sources saying North Korea had deployed Soviet-made SA-2 surface-to-air missiles to its West Coast near the Yellow Sea, and placed longer-range surface missiles on launch pads on the Northwest Coast near the front line. Yonhap said the North had also deployed anti-ship Silkworm and Samlet missiles.
South Korean military officials said the deployments appeared aimed at any American or South Korean aircraft that might cross the "Northern Limit Line," or the Yellow Sea maritime border dividing the two Koreas. North Korea, in a weekend statement, warned that the exercises could bring the region to "the brink of war."
The North Korean regime in Pyongyang also tried over the weekend to blame the United States for sparking the crisis, saying the United States had sought a justification to increase its military presence in the region.
"No sooner had the Yeonpyeong incident occurred than the U.S. announced that it would stage joint naval exercises with the South Korean puppet forces with the nuclear-powered carrier George Washington involved in the West Sea of Korea as if it had been waiting for it to happen," according to a commentary in the official Korean Central News Agency.
"This clearly indicates that the U.S. was the arch-criminal who deliberately planned the incident and wire-pulled it behind the scene," the commentary said, according to a translation by Yonhap.
The war games involving the USS George Washington supercarrier are intended to signal resolve on the part of Washington and Seoul to respond strongly to any future North Korean aggression. The United States and South Korea have said the exercise was long-planned, but no date had been announced until the North's attack on the island, which killed two marines and two civilians and wounded 18 others. "The intensity for the Yellow Sea drills will be higher than planned," a South Korean military official told local media.
China, North Korea's main ally and economic partner, also warned last week against military exercises without China's "permission" in what Beijing considers its exclusive economic zone. Beijing has pointedly refused to condemn North Korea for the attack.
But China seemed engaged in a flurry of weekend diplomacy aimed at reducing tensions. Two high-level Chinese officials, State Counciler Dai Bingguo, who is the equivalent of the Chinese president's national security adviser, and Wu Dawei, the chief nuclear negotiator, were in Seoul on Sunday for unscheduled talks with top officials, including South Korean President Lee Myung-bak.
After more than two hours of talks, South Korea's YTN television reported that Lee emphasized the importance of China's role in trying to rein in North Korea and called for China to be firm on the Yeonpyeong attack.
Dai is reported to have close relations with Kim Jong Il, North Korea's reclusive leader. Dai has traveled to Pyongyang in the past to arrange regional six-party talks on North Korea's nuclear program, and also met with Kim twice this year during the North Korean leader's trips to China.
Also, Choe Tae-bok, the chairman of North Korea's Supreme People's Assembly, or parliament, planned to visit Beijing on Tuesday, according to China's state-run Xinhua news agency. Choe, 79, was promoted in the ruling party ranks this year and is thought to be a key aide to Kim's son and heir apparent, Kim Jong Eun, who is in his late 20s.
Washington Post special correspondent Yoongjung Seo in Seoul contributed to this report.