South Korea conducted live-fire military drills near its disputed sea boundary with North Korea yesterday 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 North Korean leader Kim Jong-il and prepares for nuclear disarmament talks with the US later this week. However, with US 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 North Korean leader Kim Jong-un, Kim Jong-il’s son, navigates strained ties with rival South Korea, the planned US-South Korean military drills and a long-running standoff over the country’s nuclear weapons programs.
South Korea’s drills took place yesterday 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 last month, but it called the latest exercise a “premeditated military provocation” and warned it would retaliate for what it considers an attack on its territory.
A North Korean officer told a reporter in Pyongyang on Sunday that the country would respond to any provocation with “merciless retaliatory strikes.”
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 yesterday by the official Korean Central News Agency.
Such rhetoric has been typical of North Korean media in the past.
Later yesterday, 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 the 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 the threats allowed 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 US-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.
Additionally, a series of military exercises between the US and South Korea will extend over more than two months. Seoul and Washington say their long-planned annual drills are defensive in nature, but North Korea calls them preparation for an invasion.
South Korea began joint anti-submarine drills yesterday with the US, but the training site is farther south from the disputed sea boundary, South Korean military officials said.