South Korean army K-9 155mm self-propelled Howitzers fire rounds during… (Dong-A Ilbo / AFP / Getty…)
Reporting from Seoul — The South Korean military on Friday wrapped up three days of intense land and sea exercises as officials tried to decipher what a third North Korean nuclear test, predicted for next year, would mean for the contentious relationship between the two Koreas.
In recent weeks, the tensions on the Korean peninsula reached their highest level since a truce ended hostilities in 1953.
After the North's artillery bombardment killed four people on the southern Yeonpyeong Island on Nov. 23, South Korea has held two live-fire training exercises, despite threats from Pyongyang that it could retaliate if it felt threatened.
In recent days, one top North Korean official called the South's drills a "grave military provocation" and even threatened a "sacred" nuclear war if the South attacked.
A report released Friday predicting that the North could carry out a third atomic test as early as next year came amid growing unease. Pyongyang has already carried out nuclear tests in 2006 and 2009.
"There is a possibility of North Korea carrying out its third nuclear test to seek improvement in its nuclear weapons production capability, keep the military tension high and promote Kim Jong Un's status as the next leader," said the report by a South Korean Foreign Ministry institute, referring to Kim Jong Il's youngest son.
North Koreans on Friday marked the younger Kim's appointment to supreme commander after a huge ceremony last month.
Another report released Thursday warned that the rising tensions between Pyongyang and Seoul have "created a serious risk that any further provocation might turn into a wider conflict."
The study by the nonprofit International Crisis Group said that although the north would lose a war against its southern neighbor, "Seoul is constrained in retaliating forcefully because it has so much to lose" -- economically and politically.
"Pyongyang, isolated from global markets and domestic political forces, does not face such constraints," the report added. "Rather, the disparity permits it to provoke the South at very little cost, even while falling behind in the overall balance of conventional forces."
Dressed in green military fatigues, South Korean President Lee Myung-bak on Thursday visited a base near the heavily guarded demilitarized zone that separates the two sides, watching a massive display of force by his tanks and fighter jets.
On Friday, the South Korean navy ended the military drills with exercises off the nation's less tense eastern border.
Lee has been under pressure to get tough on Pyongyang ever since a southern warship was torpedoed in March, killing 46 men aboard. After the South was surprised by last month's artillery bombardment, Seoul replaced its defense minister and has taken a more aggressive defense posture.
"I had thought that we could safeguard peace if we had patience, but that wasn't the case," Lee told the troops during his visit, his office reported. Any surprise attack will be met with a "merciless" response," he added.