Seoul holds military drills despite N. Korean threat

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SEOUL (AP) — South Korea conducted live-fire military drills near its disputed sea boundary with North Korea on Monday despite Pyongyang’s threat to respond with a “merciless” attack.

North Korea did not carry out the threat as it focuses on internal stability two months after the death of longtime leader Kim Jong-il and prepares for nuclear disarmament talks with the United States later this week. But with American forces scheduled to conduct additional military exercises with ally South Korea over the next few months, tensions are expected to remain high in the region.

Washington and North Korea’s neighbors are closely watching how new leader Kim Jong-un, Kim Jong-il’s son, navigates strained ties with rival South Korea, the planned U.S.-South Korean military drills and a long-running standoff over the country’s nuclear weapons programs.

South Korea’s drills took place Monday in an area of the Yellow Sea that was the target of a North Korean artillery attack in 2010 that killed four South Koreans and raised fears of a wider conflict. North Korea didn’t threaten similar South Korean firing drills in the area in January but called the latest exercise a “premeditated military provocation” and warned it would retaliate for what it considered an attack on its territory.

A North Korean officer told an Associated Press staffer in Pyongyang on Sunday that North Koreans would respond to any provocation with “merciless retaliatory strikes.”

South Koreans gather in an underground shelter on Baengnyeong Island as the country's military began live-fire  drills from front-line islands near its disputed sea border with North Korea on Monday, Feb. 20, 2012. (AP Photo/Yonhap)

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South Koreans gather in an underground shelter on Baengnyeong Island as the ... more >

North Korea is prepared for a “total war,” and the drills will lead to a “complete collapse” of ties between the Koreas, the North’s Committee for the Peaceful Reunification of Korea said in a statement carried Monday by the official Korean Central News Agency.

Such rhetoric has been typical of North Korean media in the past.

Later Monday, South Korean troops on five islands near the disputed sea boundary fired artillery into waters southward, away from nearby North Korea, a South Korean Defense Ministry official said on condition of anonymity, citing department rules.

North Korea’s military maintained increased vigilance during Monday’s drills, which ended after about two hours, though Seoul saw nothing suspicious, a South Korean Joint Chiefs of Staff officer said on condition of anonymity, citing department rules.

South Korean military officials said they were ready to repel any attack. Residents on the front-line islands were asked to go to underground shelters before the drills started, according to South Korean officials.

Analysts said that the threats allow Pyongyang to show its anger over what it sees as a violation of its territory but that an immediate attack was unlikely during what is a delicate time for inter-Korean and U.S.-North Korean relations and for internal North Korean politics.

“South Korea’s military would have immediately responded this time, and that’s something that North Korea can’t afford” during its transfer of power to Kim Jong-un, said Yoo Ho-yeol, a professor at Korea University in South Korea.

The North’s threat appeared aimed at mustering internal support or could be the result of top military officers showing their loyalty to Kim Jong-un, Mr. Yoo said.

The North knows that raising tensions ahead of nuclear talks with the United States won’t be advantageous, said Cheong Seong-chang, an analyst at the private Sejong Institute in South Korea.

The Korean Peninsula has been technically at war for about 60 years. The maritime line separating the countries was drawn by the U.S.-led U.N. Command without Pyongyang’s consent at the close of the 1950-53 Korean War, which ended with a truce, not a peace treaty. North Korea routinely argues that the line should run farther south.

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