South Korea drilling plans bring new threats from North Korea

North Korea fired artillery barrages onto a South Korean island near their disputed border Nov. 23, setting buildings alight and prompting South Korea to return fire and scramble fighter jets. One South Korean marine was killed.
By Chico Harlan
Washington Post Foreign Service
Friday, December 17, 2010; 5:53 PM

SEOUL - Within the next few days, perhaps as early as Saturday, South Korea's military plans to stage a live fire drill on the same island that was shelled by North Korea 31/2 weeks ago.

But North Korea said Friday that, should South Korea carry out the drills, it will retaliate with deadly firepower.

"It will be deadlier than what was made on Nov. 23 in terms of the powerfulness and sphere of the strike," an unnamed North Korean military official said in a statement carried by Pyongyang's official Korean Central News Agency.

Also on Friday, North Korea posted a commentary on its Web site warning that any upcoming war on the peninsula would involve nuclear weapons.

Seoul has promised to hold the one-day drills on Yeonpyeong Island between Saturday and Tuesday, complicating diplomatic efforts to lower temperatures in the region and rein in North Korea's aggressive behavior.

New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson is currently in Pyongyang on a private mission to "lessen tensions." Meantime, a U.S. envoy for denuclearization talks met with his South Korean counterpart Friday in Seoul, and U.S. Deputy Secretary of State James Steinberg was in Beijing concluding a trip where he pressed China to exert greater influence on Pyongyang.

Also Friday, Russia's Foreign Ministry summoned the South Korean and U.S. ambassadors to express "extreme concern" over plans for the drill and urged Seoul not to proceed, Reuters news service reported.

Yeonpyeong Island, just two miles south of the maritime border that separates North and South Korea, was hit on Nov. 23 by an artillery barrage from the North that killed two marines and two civilians. North Korea has said that it does not recognize the maritime border - the so-called Northern Limit Line - and views the waters around Yeonpyeong as its own.

South Korea was conducting military exercises on Yeonpyeong Island at the time of the Nov. 23 attack, though military officials here have said the shooting was directed toward the south - away from North Korean territory.

In the aftermath of the attack, South Korea's government faced harsh domestic criticism, with claims that the military was ill-equipped to mount a significant counterstrike. South Korea's defense minister resigned days after the attack.

On Friday, the Defense Ministry said it would proceed with the latest round of drills, despite North Korean opposition. The North often denounces South Korean military drills, threatening bold retaliation. When the South Korean military launched a different set of artillery drills earlier this week, North Korea warned that Seoul - in tandem with Washington - was driving the peninsula toward nuclear war.

Officials from Beijing to Washington have been trying to figure out an appropriate diplomatic response to North Korea's provocations. Last month, North Korea also revealed to an American nuclear expert an advanced uranium enrichment plant. Though Beijing has vouched for a return to six-party talks, the process designed to persuade Pyongyang's denuclearization, officials in Washington, Seoul and Tokyo have reiterated their refusal to return to talks unless North Korea first halts its nuclear development.

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