SEOUL | South Korea vowed Wednesday to "completely punish" North Korea if it attacks again, and it mobilized hundreds of troops, tanks and helicopters for a massive military exercise prompted by high tensions on the peninsula.
The firing drills planned for Thursday near the Koreas' heavily armed land border signaled that South Korea is willing to risk further escalating tensions with North Korea, which shelled a southern island off the western coast on Nov. 23 and stirred up a warlike atmosphere.
The attack, which killed four people, was portrayed by Pyongyang as a retaliation for southern military exercises on Yeonpyeong Island that day.
South Korea has conducted 47 similar military drills this year, and it scheduled one more exercise for Thursday in response to the North Korean attack, an army officer said on the condition of anonymity, citing department rules.
Thursday's drill will be the biggest-ever wintertime joint firing exercise that South Korea's army and air force have staged, an army statement said.
"We will completely punish the enemy if it provokes us again like the shelling of Yeonpyeong Island," Brig. Gen. Ju Eun-sik, chief of the army's 1st Armored Brigade, said separately.
South Korean forces are on high alert even though the North backed down from its threat to retaliate again over a separate firing drill the South held Monday on Yeonpyeong in disputed western waters.
The two Koreas remain technically at war since their 1950s conflict ended in a cease-fire, not a peace treaty. The past month's military tension, however, has been the worst in several years.
The North has made conciliatory remarks in recent days - telling a visiting U.S. governor it might allow international inspections of its nuclear programs - but Seoul is mindful of past surprise attacks and still is bracing for possible aggression.
South Korea's navy also began annual four-day firing and anti-submarine exercises Wednesday off the country's eastern coast. That area has been less tense recently, but the North has used eastern waters in the past as a submarine route for communist agents to infiltrate South Korea.
The Koreas' recent military skirmishes, including last month's artillery bombardment, have been in the tense western waters, where Pyongyang does not recognize the U.N.-drawn border.
Thursday's air force and army drills will involve 800 troops, F-15K and KF-16 jet fighters, K-1 tanks, AH-1S attack helicopters and K-9 self-propelled guns. They will take place in Pocheon, about 30 miles north of Seoul and about 21 miles south of the North Korean border.
Seoul has relocated more artillery on Yeonpyeong following last month's shelling and plans to deploy Israeli-made Spike missiles there soon, Yonhap news agency reported, citing an unidentified military official. The Joint Chiefs of Staff declined to confirm the report.