South Korea’s military said Saturday it would go ahead with a live-fire drill on a border island bombarded by North Korea last month, despite the North’s threat to strike back again with deadlier firepower.
A South Korean Navy vessel berths at a Movement Sea Base (MSB) off the South Korea-controlled island of Yeonpyeong near the disputed waters of the Yellow Sea on December 17, 2010.
But an AFP photographer on Yeonpyeong island said the atmosphere was calm and a media report said the one-day training exercise — scheduled for sometime between Saturday and Tuesday — may be delayed till next week.
“There is no change in our stance with regards to the live-fire exercise,” a defence ministry spokesman told AFP. “We cannot confirm… whether we will carry out the exercise today.”
The North threatened Friday to “deal the second and third unpredictable self-defensive blow” if the artillery exercise goes ahead.
“It will be deadlier than what was made on November 23 in terms of the powerfulness and sphere of the strike,” it said.
Pyongyang disputes the Yellow Sea border drawn after the 1950-53 war and claims the waters around Yeonpyeong and other frontline islands as its own maritime territory.
The November 23 bombardment killed two marines and two civilians and damaged dozens of homes. It came after a firing drill into the sea by South Korean marines based on the island.
The North’s latest warning sharply raised the stakes in the regional crisis.
Russia urged South Korea not to go ahead with the exercise and China, the North’s sole major ally, said it opposed any action that would raise tensions.
Chinese Vice Foreign Minister Zhang Zhijun summoned South Korea’s ambassador Yu Woo-Ik Friday afternoon to express concern at the planned drill, Yonhap news agency quoted a diplomatic source as saying.
South Korea, outraged at the first shelling of civilian areas since the war, has fortified Yeonpyeong with more troops and artillery and vowed to use air power against any future attack.
Its military has said artillery will be aimed away from the North as usual during the upcoming drill, but it would respond strongly if provoked.
But a military source quoted by Yonhap said the firing might be delayed a day or two.
“Weather conditions are the most important factor in deciding the time for a drill. Early next week will be the most likely time to hold it because the weather should improve,” the source said.
Asked why weather was a factor, a military spokesman cited comments by a government source in Chosun Ilbo newspaper.
“The live-fire exercise itself will end in 1-2 hours, but since we have to prepare for North Korea’s provocation afterwards, there is a good possibility the exercise will be delayed to when the weather is good all day long,” the source was quoted as saying.
“It is highly likely that the drill will be held early next week.”
The South’s close ally the United States plans to send some 20 US soldiers to play a supporting role in the drill.
State Department spokesman Philip Crowley Friday again defended the South’s right to hold the drill in the face of North Korea’s “ongoing provocations”.
But he said Washington trusts that the South “will be very cautious in terms of what it does”.
Pyongyang’s disclosure last month of an apparently working uranium enrichment plant — a potential new source of bomb-making material — has also heightened regional security fears.
The North’s website Uriminzokkiri said the drill could spark nuclear war.
“It is clear if war breaks out again in this land, a grave nuclear disaster will take place which will bear no comparison to the Korean War.”
US troubleshooter Bill Richardson said he urged North Korean officials during his current visit to Pyongyang to let the South go ahead with the drill.
“I’m urging them extreme restraint,” the New Mexico governor told CNN, saying he was “very, very strong with foreign ministry officials” during a dinner on Friday.
“I think I made a little headway,” Richardson said. “My sense from the North Koreans is that they are trying to find ways to tamp things down.”
Analyst Andrei Lankov said that for the first time in decades, a new war appeared to be a distinct probability.
Lankov, a professor at Seoul’s Kookmin University, said the Pyongyang regime seemed determined to escalate provocations, and South Korean society was in “unusually bellicose mood” after the last Yeonpyeong attack.
But in an article in Foreign Affairs magazine, Lankov said “the hard truth is that restraint is the only option for South Korea”.