N. Korea threatens to attack S. Korea over drills

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PYONGYANG, North Korea (AP) — North Korea will launch “merciless” strikes if South Korea goes through with planned live-fire drills near their disputed sea border, a North Korean officer said Sunday, amid persistent tension on the divided peninsula.

North Korea doesn’t want a war, but its people are always ready to “dedicate their blood to defend their inviolable territory,” the officer, Sin Chol-ung, of the North’s Korean People’s Security Forces told the Associated Press.

“We are monitoring every movement by the South Korean warmongers. If they provoke us, there will be only merciless retaliatory strikes,” he said.

South Korea will stage regular one-day artillery drills Monday from front-line islands off the western coast, including one shelled by North Korea in 2010, according to Seoul’s Joint Chiefs of Staff. It said South Korea informed North Korea of its training plan on Sunday.

Soon after, the North’s military issued a statement warning of the strikes and urging all civilians living or working on the islands to evacuate before the drills start.

“Such move of the warlike forces is a premeditated military provocation … to drive the overall situation on the Korean peninsula into the phase of war,” a North Korean western military command said in a statement carried by the official Korean Central News Agency.

The North frequently issues similar rhetoric against South Korea, but the latest warning comes as ties between the Koreas remain tense following the death of North Korean leader Kim Jong-il in December.

South Korea has barred all of its citizens, except for two private delegations, from visiting to pay respects to Kim, and North Korea has vowed to retaliate.

South Korea regularly conducts artillery drills from front-line islands. A November 2010 drill at one of the five islands, Yeonpyeong, triggered a North Korean artillery bombardment that killed four South Koreans. Pyongyang has accused Seoul of provoking the attack by conducting drills in its territorial waters.

In Seoul, an official at the Joint Chiefs of Staff said that South Korea’s military will go ahead with Monday’s two-hour artillery drills and is ready to repel any North Korean provocation.

The official, speaking on condition of anonymity citing department rules, said North Korea hasn’t shown any suspicious military activities so far.

South Korea also plans joint anti-submarine drills with the United States this week, but the training site is further south, he said. About 28,500 U.S. troops are stationed in South Korea as what U.S. and South Korean officials call deterrence against North Korean aggression.

“The Lee Myung-bak group of traitors should not forget the lesson taught by the Yeonpyeong Island shelling case,” the North’s statement said, referring to the South Korean president.

The North’s warning also came four days before U.S. and North Korean officials meet in Beijing for talks on the country’s nuclear weapons program. The talks will be the first such bilateral contact since Kim’s Dec. 17 death.

The Korean Peninsula remains technically at war because the 1950-53 Korean War ended with an armistice, not a peace treaty.

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