SEOUL: South Korea announced land and sea military exercises on Wednesday including a major live-fire drill near North Korea just as tension on the peninsula was beginning to ease after Pyongyang’s attack on a southern island.
The land drill, involving three dozen mobile artillery guns, six fighter jets, multiple launch rocket systems and 800 troops, the largest number of personnel in a single peace-time exercise, will take place on Thursday and is likely to irritate the North.
The scale of the drill and the timing, coming right after the tensely staged live-fire exercise on Monday, indicate South Korea’s conservative president, Lee Myung-bak, sees more political mileage in taking a tough military stance rather than reverting to dialogue, despite overtures from Pyongyang.
Lee’s government was heavily criticized at home for a perceived weak response to North Korea’s shelling of the southern island of Yeonpyeong last month.
“We’ll be sure to deal a punishing blow if the North tries to repeat the kind of situation like the artillery shelling of Yeonpyeong,” Brigadier General Ju Eun-shik said in a statement.
South Korean media outlets called the live-fire drill the largest ever. But in Washington, the Pentagon described the drills as routine and previously scheduled and said none of the some 28,000 US forces in South Korea would participate.
“These are standard, routine training exercises on established ranges,” Pentagon spokesman Colonel Dave Lapan said. “Some of the reporting about it being the largest exercise ever is false.”
At the White House, spokesman Robert Gibbs said the Obama administration did not expect the military exercises to trigger a North Korean response.
“Exercises that have been announced well in advance, that are transparent, that are defensive in nature, should in no way engender a response from the North Koreans,” Gibbs said.
There was no immediate reaction from North Korea. State news agency KCNA, which regularly denounces the South, United States and Japan, made no mention of the drills, although it carried an article lambasting a US lawmaker critical of Pyongyang as “human scum” and a “political illiterate.”
South Korea is also holding three days of live-firing naval drills off the peninsula’s east coast starting on Wednesday, a media official at the Defence Ministry said.
He would not provide details. Yonhap news agency said the drills were taking place 100 km (60 miles) south of the maritime border with North Korea and involved at least six naval vessels.
North Korea this week offered to re-admit UN inspectors concerned about its nuclear weapons program, leading to speculation of a resumption of six-party disarmament talks and a general sense of relief that the crisis had passed.
“The drills are an indication that (the South) is aiming to keep tensions very high, partly because of the possibility of the North striking back,” said Kim Yong-hyun of Dongguk University.
“Dialogue is clearly not high on the agenda. It’s still very much in the mode of how they can respond to incidents like the one on Yeonpyeong and to show that response in the future will be overwhelming.”
The South Korean Army is making no secret that the drill is aimed at displaying its firepower to its neighbor.
“Yes, it will be a show of force against that,” an army officer said, when asked if the shelling of Yeonpyeong last month was a factor in the land drill’s planning.
He said similar drills had been staged previously on more than 50 occasions, but the scale this time was unprecedented.
“The scale of mechanized assets taking place is enormous. When we would normally have 6 K-9 mechanized artillery, we’ll have 36. We’ll have the F-15 jets firing. We’ll have choppers. You can say most of the mechanized assets taking part will be firing live ammunition.”
It will take place in the Pocheon region, less than 50 km (30 miles) north of downtown Seoul.
The latest crisis peaked when North Korea shelled Yeonpyeong, just south of the disputed maritime border, killing four people — including two civilians — in the worst attack on South Korean territory since the end of the civil war in 1953.
The South carried out live-fire drills on Yeonpyeong on Monday, which provoked only a verbal reaction from the North.
It had vowed to strike back if the South went ahead with the drills, prompting fears of all-out war.
China, North Korea’s only major ally, has urged dialogue to resolve the crisis and urged Pyongyang to follow through on its offer to allow UN inspectors into the country.
The Chinese Foreign Ministry had no immediate comment on the planned drill.
Analysts say the North is unlikely to undertake another hostile act like this year’s attack on South Korea’s Cheonan warship, blamed on the North by the United States and the South, and the Yeonpyeong shelling, at least in the near term. – Reuters