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S. Korea holds live-fire drills

Island residents take cover in case the North makes good on its threat to attack.

December 20, 2010|John M. Glionna

SEOUL — South Korea on Monday conducted an hourlong live-fire artillery drill on an island at the center of recent tensions on the Korean peninsula, as residents anxiously waited to see whether North Korea would make good on its pledge to attack the South if the exercises took place.

Residents of Yeonpyeong and other South Korean front-line islands were ordered into bomb shelters. Soon after the exercises began, South Korea announced that it had deployed jet fighters in case of a North Korean attack, according to Seoul's Yonhap news service.

The South Korean media reported that the drills ended at 3:30 p.m., but other news outlets said that eyewitnesses on Yeonpyeong Island later heard what sounded like artillery fire.

In recent days, the international community has scurried to head off the outbreak of renewed hostilities between the Koreas. In New York on Sunday, the United Nations Security Council met in an emergency session to prompt both sides to scale back on threats and belligerent exchanges.

But the Security Council meeting hit an impasse when diplomats said China objected to North Korea being singled out for criticism over two deadly attacks, which include the alleged torpedoing of a South Korean warship in March.

Russia, which called the meeting, had proposed a draft statement that would have the Security Council call on both Koreas "to exercise maximum restraint" and urge immediate diplomatic efforts to reduce tensions.

Most council members, including the U.S., viewed the Russian draft as unfairly equating the actions of the two Koreas, according to council diplomats.

Several nations had demanded that the council condemn North Korea for the recent island shelling and the March 26 sinking of a South Korean patrol ship, which killed 46 sailors.

Over the weekend, China also called for restraint, saying it stood firmly against any acts that could "sabotage regional peace and stability."

While not taking part in the exercises, the U.S. supports South Korea's decision to conduct war games in its own territory, a Yellow Sea island seven miles off the North Korean coast, within sight of Kim Jong Il's secretive nation.

North Korea has said the exercises threaten its sovereignty, and has promised "unpredictable self-defensive blows" if the drills are held.

On Sunday, New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson, who has been serving as an unofficial envoy to Pyongyang, the North Korean capital, said he had made some progress in pleas to North Korean officials to back off from their pledges of violence.

Richardson, on a private four-day mission to Pyongyang, said he wasn't sure whether North Korea would attack the South again, telling CNN that "it's still very tense out there." He added that officials "said there would be a response, but at the same time they hope a U.N. Security Council resolution would tamp down the situation. It was very clear they were very upset by the potential exercise."

In a statement released by his office late Saturday, Richardson had called on the U.N. to act quickly. "I hope that the U.N. Security Council will pass a strong resolution calling for self-restraint from all sides in order to seek peaceful means to resolve this dispute," the statement read. "A U.N. resolution could provide cover for all sides that prevents aggressive military action."

On Monday, CNN reported that North Korea had agreed to allow International Atomic Energy Agency inspectors to return to a nuclear facility in the country after discussions with Richardson.

A Joint Chiefs of Staff official, who did not give his name, told Seoul's Yonhap news service that South Korea was not in any way considering the North's objections in making its decision to carry out the drills.

"The planned firing drill is part of the usual exercises conducted by our troops based on Yeonpyeong Island. The drill will occur within our territorial waters," the South Korean official said.

"We won't take into consideration North Korean threats and diplomatic situations before holding the live-fire drill."

On Nov. 23, North Korea unleashed nearly 200 shells on Yeonpyeong Island that killed two South Korean marines and two civilians. After what many South Koreans perceived as a weak response, Seoul replaced its defense minister.

Newly appointed Defense Minister Kim Kwan-jin has vowed to hit back hard in a counterstrike that would include air power if North Korea attacked again. Seoul had put its F-15K and KF-16 fighters on standby.

South Korea has said that its artillery guns would be aimed southwest and away from North Korea, as was the case last month in drills before the North's attack.

Officials said that clear weather is vital to observe the artillery trajectory and closely monitor the North Korean military's movements during the drills.

Over the weekend, Pyongyang continued to verbally lash out against its southern neighbor, blaming Seoul for conspiring with Washington to cause trouble on the peninsula.

In a statement, North Korea's Foreign Ministry spokesman said, "We will be sure to settle scores with the U.S. for the extreme situation on the Korean peninsula. Our military does not speak empty words."

john.glionna@latimes.com

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