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South Korea Begins Firing Drills Amid North Korea’s War Threat

South Korea’s military began live-firing drills off its coastline, similar to exercises held last month that North Korea says prompted it to shell a South Korean island, killing four people.

The South Korean government warned ships to avoid 29 areas, including one about 7 miles (11 kilometers) from Daecheong island close to the disputed western border. A spokesman at the Joint Chiefs of Staff in Seoul, who declined to be named because of military policy, couldn’t confirm whether all the drills had started on schedule.

North Korea yesterday warned that the South risked "catastrophic consequences" with its plans. The government “is so hell-bent on the moves to escalate the confrontation and start a war that it is recklessly behaving bereft of reason,” the state-run Korean Central News Agency said in a commentary.

Tensions have risen on the Korean peninsula since North Korea’s Nov. 23 artillery attack on Yeonpyeong island close to the western maritime boundary. Prime Minister Kim Hwang Sik reiterated today that South Korea will bolster its military presence in border areas.

"Our military is bolstering our readiness to respond sternly to any further provocation," Kim said in a nationally televised statement. The government will spend 30 billion won ($26.5 million) to help Yeonpyeong residents rebuild after the attack, Kim said.

Yeonpyeong Shelling

North Korea fired artillery at the fishing community and military outpost in the first shelling of South Korean soil since the 1950-1953 war. North Korea said it was responding to a military provocation after South Korea fired into waters each country claims.

North Korea doesn’t recognize the western sea border demarcated by the United Nations after the war and demands it should be drawn further south to include Yeonpyeong and four neighboring islands.

South Korea’s new defense minister, Kim Kwan Jin, on Dec. 3 vowed retaliation that would include air strikes in response to a new North Korean attack.

"I will mobilize all combat capabilities available to severely punish the enemy," Kim, former chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said at his confirmation hearing. “I will surely use planes. This is a matter of self-defense.” North Korea denounced the comments in yesterday’s KCNA statement.

‘Reckless Moves’

North Korea two days ago blasted the U.S., South Korea and Japan for “reckless moves” to create a military alliance that threatens peace in North Asia. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton will today host Japan’s Foreign Minister Seiji Maehara and South Korean counterpart Kim Sung Hwan in Washington to discuss regional security.

“The situation on the Korean Peninsula is getting tenser as the days go by and the danger of a war is increasing hour by hour,” KCNA reported, citing a commentary in the state-run Rodong newspaper. “The U.S. is giving spurs to an arms buildup and preparations for a war.”

The U.S. sent the USS George Washington to join South Korean naval forces in an exercise in the Yellow Sea at the end of November and the aircraft carrier is now taking part in drills with Japan involving about 400 aircraft and 60 warships. More than 40,000 Japanese and U.S. military personnel began a weeklong exercise on Dec. 3.

No Link

The Japan-U.S. military exercise has no link to any “existing or perceived political or geographical situation nor is it directed at any nation,” U.S. Lieutenant Colonel Kenneth Hoffman, an Air Force spokesman, said in an e-mailed message.

China last week criticized the exercise as an obstacle to easing tensions that have increased since the March sinking of the South Korean warship Cheonan. An international panel blamed the incident on a North Korean torpedo, which Kim Jong Il’s regime has denied.

Japan and the U.S. joined South Korea in condemning North Korea’s shelling of Yeonpyeong, rejecting China’s call for talks and urging the government in Beijing to do more to rein in its communist ally.

China has “much influence and therefore much responsibility,” Admiral Michael Mullen, chairman of the U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff, said at a forum of the Center for American Progress in Washington on Dec. 1. “We need China to step up.”

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