South Korea in live-fire 'show of force'

Ref: South Korea is staging one of its largest ever military drills amid highly tense relations with the North.
Hundreds of troops, tanks, helicopters and jet fighters are gathering some 20km (12 miles) from the heavily armed land border.

The exercises will be held 20km (12 miles) south of the border

The exercises will be held 20km (12 miles) south of the border

Tension has been high since North Korea shelled the South’s Yeonpyeong island last month, killing four South Koreans.

The North has branded the exercises “warmongering” but has not threatened the South with any retaliation.

‘Drills for invasion’

The South Korean army has made no secret of the fact the drill aims to display its full firepower to its neighbour.

“Yes, it will be a show of force,” one army officer told Associated Press news agency ahead of the exercise.

Thursday’s drill is being held at Pocheon, about 50km from central Seoul.

Exercises have been held at Pocheon before, but this is on an unprecedented scale, an army spokesman said.

Although the South has conducted 47 military drills this year, this is the largest winter live-fire exercise ever conducted on land.

It began about 45 minutes later than the scheduled start time of 1400 local time (0500 GMT) and was to last about an hour, with more than 100 types of weapons deployed, including tanks, anti-tank missiles, helicopters and fighter jets.

The BBC’s Kevin Kim in Seoul says the exercise sounds dramatic but it is more of a media event, showing the range of weaponry open to the South, with invited members of the public watching from a distance.

He says people in Seoul are carrying on as normal with tension reduced from earlier in the week.

When the North fired on Yeonpyeong last month it said it was in response to a live-fire drill by the South.

A statement by the North’s official KCNA news agency said of the latest drills: “[South Korea] is trying to hide the provocative nature toward the North of the war exercises.”

A commentary in the North’s Rodong Sinmun newspaper said: “The Korean peninsula has turned sharply unstable on the brink of war due to scheming by the US to militarily stifle the North.”

The South is simultaneously conducting four days of naval exercises. The North called those “fanatical drills for invasion”.

But the comments have been far less strident than threats issued last week of retaliation over the South’s impending military drills.

White House spokesman Robert Gibbs said: “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.”

The BBC’s Charles Scanlon, in Seoul, says that North Korea’s leaders may now conclude that their artillery attack last month has served its purpose – South Korean generals are now matching their Northern rivals with hostile rhetoric, a dramatic change of mood in the South.

The South’s new, more aggressive stance, our correspondent adds, has given North Korea an opportunity to present itself as the injured party and a force for restraint.

Already, both China and Russia have called on the South to calm down and US officials too are privately expressing their concern.

The North Korean shelling of Yeonpyeong shocked South Koreans, sparking the replacement of the country’s defence minister.

South Korea and the US had already been conducting large-scale military exercises, following the apparent torpedoing of a South Korean warship by the North on 26 March, which killed 46 south Korean sailors.

Meanwhile on Tuesday, a giant Christmas tree was lit on the southern side of the demilitarised zone, despite concerns in Seoul that North Korea could strike the position.

Talks walk-out

Efforts to redirect the Korean issue back to the negotiating table have been unsuccessful.

China and the North say it is time to return to the six-nation talks about North Korea’s nuclear programmes.

But the US, South Korea and Japan have said they will not return to such talks, which have previously involved rewards for the North if it cuts back on nuclear development.

After a visit to North Korea, the US politician, New Mexico Governor Bill Richardson, said North Korea agreed to let international monitors back into the country to inspect its nuclear sites.

China has also urged the North to invite staff from the International Atomic Energy Agency but there has been no word from the North on the subject.

North Korea walked out of the six-party talks in April 2009 and expelled UN nuclear inspectors from the country.

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