SKorea to conduct firing drills from border island

December 19, 2010 7:26:28 PM PST
South Korea ordered residents of front-line islands into bomb shelters as it vowed to press forward with live-fire drills near disputed waters Monday despite North Korea's threat to retaliate, sharply spiking tensions.

U.N. diplomats meeting in New York failed to find any solution to ease fears of a new war on the Korean peninsula, nearly a month after the North shelled South Korea's Yeonpyeong island in retaliation for earlier artillery exercises there. The North has said it would respond even more harshly to any new drills from the Yellow Sea island.

South Korea's move to launch new drills from Yeonpyeong brought tensions to their highest point since the North's Nov. 23 bombardment, which killed two South Korean marines and two civilians in the North's first attack targeting civilian areas since the 1950-53 Korean War.

South Korean marines on Yeonpyeong, a tiny enclave of fishing communities and military bases within sight of North Korean shores, were to conduct the live-fire drills from the island later Monday, although the exact timing will depend on weather conditions, the Joint Chiefs of Staff and the Defense Ministry said.

South Korea's military will "immediately and sternly" deal with any North Korean provocation, a Joint Chiefs of Staff officer said, speaking on condition of anonymity, citing department rules.

Residents, local officials and journalists Yeonpyeong and four other islands were ordered to evacuate to underground shelters because of possible attacks by North Korea, Ongjin County government spokesman Won Ji-young said.

The Defense Ministry said the artillery drills were to be staged sometime Monday afternoon. The drills were to last about two hours and involve several types of weapons, including K-9 self-propelled guns, ministry spokesman Kim Min-seok told reporters, according to his office.

The North, which considers the waters around Yeonpyeong its own territory, has warned of a "catastrophe" if South Korea goes ahead with the drills. The North says it warned South Korea before last month's shelling not to conduct similar live-fire drills from Yeonpyeong.

The U.N. Security Council failed Sunday to agree on a statement to address rising tensions on the Korean peninsula.

U.S. Ambassador Susan Rice said the United States and other council members demanded that the council condemn North Korea for two deadly attacks this year that have helped send relations to their lowest point in decades. But diplomats said China strongly objected.

After eight hours of closed-door consultations Sunday, Russia's U.N. Ambassador Vitaly Churkin, who called the emergency council meeting, told reporters "we were not successful in bridging all the bridges."

Although some countries still need to consult capitals, Rice said "the gaps that remain are unlikely to be bridged."

Several bloody naval skirmishes have occurred along the disputed western sea border between the two Koreas in recent years. The North does not recognize the U.N.-drawn sea border in the area.

The North claims South Korea fired artillery toward its territorial waters before it unleashed shells on the island on Nov. 23. The South says it launched shells southward, not toward North Korea, as part of routine exercises.

New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson, a frequent unofficial envoy to North Korea and former U.S. ambassador to the U.N., has held three meetings with top leaders in the foreign ministry and military during a four-day visit to Pyongyang. He called for maximum restraint.

According to South Korea's Yonhap news agency, North Korea has raised military readiness of its artillery unit along the west coast.

It cited an unidentified South Korean government official who was also quoted as saying some North Korean fighter jets that had been inside the west coast air force hangar had come outside.

A South Korean Defense Ministry official declined to confirm the report, citing the issue's sensitivity. He asked not to be identified as he was not authorized to speak to the media.

China, the North's key ally, has said it is "unambiguously opposed" to any acts that could worsen already-high tensions.

Chinese Foreign Minister Yang Jiechi and his Russian counterpart, Sergei Lavrov, called for restraint from all parties concerned to avoid escalation, according to China's official Xinhua News Agency.

About 150 residents, officials and journalists were on Yeonpyeong on Monday, said Won, the spokesman for Ongjin County. He said there is no immediate plan to order a mandatory evacuation to the mainland.


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