SEOUL | Air-raid sirens blared as hundreds of thousands of South Koreans donned gas masks on Tuesday in a nationwide civil defense drill, as Seoul’s defense chief said North Korea has bolstered its military readiness amid tensions over the sinking of a South Korean warship.
Although both Koreas have exchanged harsh rhetoric and increased their military vigilance in recent weeks, Seoul officials have said it is unlikely renewed tension would lead to all-out war.
The defense drill was the first on a nationwide scale for possible chemical, biological and radiological attacks since 1989, the National Emergency Management Agency said. It said the exercise was resumed in the aftermath of the ship sinking in March that South Korea blamed on North Korea.
“Now North Korea is maintaining a considerably strengthened vigilance posture, and as you know, it’s been issuing many threats and statements through various channels,” South Korean Defense Minister Kim Tae-young told the National Assembly on Tuesday. “But there have been no serious military activities at the border and in rear areas.”
The U.N. Security Council said late Monday it is “gravely concerned” the ship sinking could endanger peace on the peninsula and urged both Koreas to refrain from any provocative acts. A statement was issued after the council listened to separate presentations from each side, with Seoul seeking U.N. action to punish Pyongyang.
South Korea has taken punitive measures against North Korea, including trade restrictions, after the warship Cheonan was sunk by a torpedo attack in March, killing 46 sailors. North Korea flatly denies its involvement and has warned any retaliation would trigger war, with its military threatening Saturday to turn Seoul into “a sea of flame.”
Mr. Kim said South Korea was closely watching North Korea’s military because it may engage in provocative acts anytime.
North Korea repeated its stance that it had nothing to do with the sinking.
U.N. diplomats familiar with contacts on possible council action said China, the North’s closest ally, is opposed to a third round of sanctions against Pyongyang and indicated the more likely result will be a presidential statement. The diplomats spoke on the condition of anonymity because the contacts have been private.
A presidential statement is considered a weaker form of rebuke than the imposition of sanctions.
South Korean President Lee Myung-bak renewed calls Tuesday for international action to get North Korea to acknowledge and apologize for the ship sinking, according to the presidential office.
The two Koreas are still technically at war because their 1950-53 Korean War ended with an armistice, not a peace treaty. The sinking occurred near the tense Korean sea border — a scene of three bloody maritime battles.
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