By Chico Harlan
Washington Post Foreign Service
Monday, December 13, 2010; 1:07 PM
SEOUL - North Korea warned Monday that U.S.-South Korean military cooperation could drive the peninsula toward nuclear war, as South Korean troops began their latest live-fire drills.
Though North Korea regularly issues such threats, few in Seoul now consider the war scenario as empty rhetoric, given the Nov. 23 artillery shelling of a South Korean island that killed two marines and two civilians.
Pyongyang's attack on Yeonpyeong island has prompted elaborate diplomatic and military posturing, with Washington coordinating joint military exercises with South Korea and Japan and hosting leaders from both countries in a trilateral meeting.
On Monday, according to a statement from South Korea's defense ministry, the United States and South Korea formed a joint committee designed to deter North Korea's nuclear threat. And South Korea launched artillery exercises at 27 sites across the coast - though not near the disputed border.
On Wednesday, South Korea will hold a nationwide civil defense drill, with people taking underground shelter and jets simulating a North Korean air strike.
"For South Koreans, this is like sleeping and dining with an enemy," said Song Min-soon, a former South Korean foreign minister and current assembly member. "It's like an invader who has a grenade in his hand with the pin pulled off."
Meanwhile, North Korea's main party newspaper, the Rodong Sinmun, carried a commentary that described U.S.-South Korea military cooperation as "nothing but treachery escalating the tension between the North and the South and bringing the dark clouds of a nuclear war to hang over the Korean peninsula."
On perpetual war footing, North Korea makes frequent statements indicating that the region is headed for disaster. In 2004, Pyongyang threatened to turn Japan into a "nuclear sea of fire." Two years later it pledged to "mercilessly wipe out" the United States in the event of war. The North frequently threatens to turn Seoul into a "sea of flames."
U.S. officials - most notably Mullen - have urged China to exert greater influence on Pyongyang, to little effect. Deputy Secretary of State James Steinberg will visit China later that week to deliver that message again.
Mullen, in his visit to Iraq, on Monday called North Korean leader Kim Jong Il is "a very unpredictable guy," the Associated Press reported. "It's changed out there, and it's dangerous. Increasingly dangerous," Mullen said, adding that the North Korea's actions are related to plans for Kim's son to succeed him.
Last week, a top Chinese diplomat met with North Korean leader Kim Jong Il in Pyongyang - a sign, according to the North Korean media description, of "friendly and cooperative relations."