- Associated Press - Wednesday, December 15, 2010

SEOUL | South Koreans stopped their cars, donned gas masks and ducked into underground shelters Wednesday in the country’s biggest-ever evacuation drill - a government attempt to prepare traditionally indifferent citizens for attack by North Korea.

Fears of war on the divided Korean Peninsula have intensified since the rivals fired artillery shells at each other last month across their tense western sea border. Four South Koreans on a front-line island were killed; the North’s casualties are unknown.

Many South Koreans have become used to regular North Korean threats to turn the South into a “sea of fire” and have reacted coolly to civil drills. Yet they expressed widespread anger and shock over the North’s Nov. 23 artillery bombardment of South Korea’s Yeonpyeong Island.

It was North Korea’s first assault targeting a civilian area since the end of Korean War combat in 1953. Both Koreas accuse each other of staging the first provocation. The North claims that South Korea fired artillery toward its territorial waters, while South Korea says it launched shells southward, not toward North Korea, as part of routine exercises.

The nationwide 20-minute evacuation drills Wednesday were the largest since the country began the training in 1975.

No penalty was imposed for not going to shelters, but authorities encouraged participation, sending word through the media and posting notices in residential areas. Officials said about 11 million of South Korea’s 49 million people took part in the drill.

In Paju, a city near the border with North Korea, dozens of residents ran to underground parking lots and donned gas masks in a drill against chemical, biological and radiological attacks. Rescue workers wearing gas masks and protective suits filled ambulances with residents pretending to be infected with chemical agents.

The drills were held amid stepped-up diplomatic moves by the United States and regional powers.

New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson, on his way to visit North Korea, was scheduled to stop in Beijing on Thursday. Mr. Richardson often has acted as a diplomatic troubleshooter and has made regular visits to North Korea.

Also Wednesday, Deputy Secretary of State James Steinberg arrived in Beijing for talks with Chinese State Councilor Dai Bingguo, Beijing’s top foreign policy official. Mr. Dai returned last week from talks in Pyongyang with North Korean leader Kim Jong-il.

China has come under growing pressure from the United States and others to push ally North Korea to change its behavior.

South Korea’s chief North Korea nuclear envoy traveled to Russia for meetings Wednesday with his Russian counterpart.

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