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Monday, December 20, 2010

Defying North, South Korea Conducts Live-Fire Drills - NYTimes.com

Defying North, South Korea Conducts Live-Fire Drills - NYTimes.com

SEOUL, South Korea — Defying North Korean threats of violent retaliation and “brutal consequences beyond imagination,” South Korea on Monday staged live-fire artillery drills on an island shelled last month by the North.

The drills, which included F-15K fighter-bombers overhead, came after the United Nations Security Council failed to agree on a measure calling for moderation and restraint by the two Koreas. Seoul also rejected calls by China and Russia to cancel the exercise.

The drill, in which shells were fired into waters claimed by both Koreas, escalates what is already an ominous standoff that American military officials have warned could spiral out of control. South Korea insisted that the drill was routine and that it had the sovereign right to conduct such exercises, even at a time of such heightened tensions.

A spokesman for the South Korean Joint Chiefs of Staff said marine artillery units on Yeonpyeong Island began firing Monday at 2:30 p.m. and ended at 4:04. The South Korean island, which sits just eight miles off the North Korean coast, was the site of last month’s artillery barrage by the North that killed two marines and two civilians.

“There was no North Korean response,” a Defense Ministry official said Monday evening in Seoul. “We keep watching and monitoring. No trouble.”

He declined to say how many rounds had been fired during the drill.

Earlier Monday, South Korean television showed footage of the few remaining residents of the island’s fishing community moving into bomb shelters and trying on gas masks as the mainland also braced itself for possible North Korean retaliation.

Gen. Walter L. Sharp, the commander of American forces in South Korea, and Kathleen Stephens, the American ambassador to Seoul, went on Sunday to the Blue House, the presidential offices and residence. The embassy declined to comment Monday about the Blue House visit or the drill.

“The U.S. side said it supports South Korea’s military training plan irrespective of North Korea’s response, and that it will stay with us whatever happens,” said Kim Hee-jung, a spokeswoman for South Korean President Lee Myung-bak.

Some 20 American military personnel attended the artillery drill in various support and observer roles. The United States has been South Korea’s protector since the Korean War, with some 28,500 military personnel currently stationed here.

At the Security Council meeting in New York, the American ambassador to the United Nations, Susan E. Rice, defended Seoul, saying it was “important to recognize that that there is nothing unusual about these planned drills.”

“They are exclusively defensive in nature, and they have been regularly conducted for years,” she said.

An unofficial American envoy visiting North Korea, Gov. Bill Richardson of New Mexico, a former ambassador to the United Nations, said that the North was taking the drill and the ongoing tensions very seriously. He said the North had offered concessions on its nuclear program, including a resumption of visits by United Nations inspectors.

Some political analysts said the government of South Korea’s Mr. Lee appeared keen to press forward with the exercise to demonstrate its newly bolstered policy of standing up to the North’s threats. Mr. Lee and his government have faced withering public criticism for what has been seen here as weak responses to the shelling of Yeonpyeong on Nov. 23 and the sinking in March of a South Korean warship in nearby waters.

“They want to show they are tough,” said Andrei Lankov, a longtime observer of North Korea and a professor at Kookmin University in Seoul. “Lee Myung-bak cannot show his weakness, both domestically and in front of North Korea. “

An opposition lawmaker and a former Unification minister, Chung Dong-young, said on Monday that Mr. Lee’s government was “incompetent” in matters of security and had veered into “military adventurism and even recklessness.”

“It’s not acceptable the way the military has responded,” he said, adding that the inter-Korean situation had become “an unprecedented crisis.”

The rising tensions have centered on the Yellow Sea around Yeonpyeong, with the North suddenly growing more assertive in disputing the so-called Northern Limit Line, a maritime boundary that was drawn by the United States after the 1950-53 Korean War.

A number of political analysts say the North appears to be engaged in military brinkmanship aimed at forcing the South to resume food aid and other assistance to North Korea’s decrepit state-run economy, and possibly to burnish the military credentials of the youngest son and presumed heir of Kim Jong-il, the North Korean dictator.

For its part, the South also appears unwilling to back down this time, as President Lee, a conservative, has come under pressure, particularly from his right-wing base, for failing to respond more robustly both to last month’s attack and the sinking of the warship. The new South Korean defense minister, a former four-star general, has vowed to strike back hard at North Korea — including airstrikes — should it attack again.

Last month’s attack was particularly shocking in the South because it appeared to target the island’s small fishing community of about 1,350 civilians, and its well dug-in military garrison. This has led to uncharacteristic calls for revenge against the North.

For its part, the North denies responsibility for the sinking of the warship, the Cheonan, and maintains that the shelling of Yeonpyeong was in self-defense. It promised to respond fiercely if the South fired into waters it claims, including those around Yeonpyeong.

The question now is whether the North will make good on its promises to retaliate, and how it might do so. Mr. Lankov, the analyst, said he did not expect a massive response by Pyongyang because the recent incidents are part of a North Korean “strategy of tensions,” meaning that North Korean leaders want to choose when and where to strike.

“I do not think the North Koreans will do much this time,” Mr. Lankov said. “They’d rather deliver a new blow later when they will be ready. But the maneuvers still mean a great risk of escalation.”

Meanwhile, Mr. Richardson said the North had agreed to concessions related to its nuclear program, a main source of tension on the peninsula. A former United States special envoy to North Korea, Mr. Richardson was on an unofficial trip approved by the State Department. He met with high-ranking military officials, the North Korean vice president and members of the Foreign Ministry over four days.

Mr. Richardson said the North had made two significant concessions toward reopening six-party talks on the country’s nuclear program. The North’s proposal would allow United Nations nuclear inspectors back into the Yongbyon nuclear complex to ensure that it is not producing enriched uranium for a nuclear bomb. The North recently showed an American nuclear expert a new and stunningly sophisticated facility there. It expelled international inspectors last year.

North Korean officials also told Mr. Richardson that their government was willing to sell 12,000 plutonium fuel rods to South Korea, removing bomb-making material from the North, he said. “I would describe this as important progress,” he said of the concessions.

But in Seoul, a spokesman for the Joint Chiefs of Staff said the concessions had no bearing on the South’s decision to hold the drills.

Sharon LaFraniere contributed reporting from Pyongyang, North Korea.

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