x Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 21 July 2017

South Korea begins live-fire military drills

South Korea's military begins a major live-fire exercise today amid high tensions on the divided peninsula following North Korea's deadly bombardment of a border island last month.

South Korea's military began a major live-fire exercise today amid high tensions on the divided peninsula following North Korea's deadly bombardment of a border island last month.

The Joint Chiefs of Staff (JCS) said the five-day series of drills would take place in 29 locations off South Korea, despite the North's claims that it could trigger war.

It was unclear whether one of the firing drills - near the flashpoint disputed Yellow Sea border - had begun as earlier announced.

YTN television said around midday that firing had not yet started off Daecheong island. A JCS spokesman said he had no confirmation of the report.

In a shock bombardment of Yeonpyeong island on November 23, the North killed two civilians and two marines and destroyed 29 homes, sending regional tensions soaring.

The North maintained it was retaliating for a South Korean artillery drill which had lobbed some shells into waters it claims as its territory.

Yeonpyeong has been excluded from this week's drills, which military officials said would involve the army, navy and air force.

Pyongyang yesterday described the exercise as an attempt to trigger a war.

"The frantic provocations on the part of the puppet group (Seoul government) are rapidly driving the situation on the Korean peninsula to an uncontrollable extreme phase," the North's official news agency said.

"I don't dwell on North Korea's response as it does not deserve even a little consideration," said the South's new defence minister Kim Kwan-Jin, who last week vowed to hit back with air strikes against any new attack.

The South's artillery fired back on November 23 at the North's artillery units but its response was widely seen as weak and ineffective.

More troops and weaponry are being sent to five frontline islands "so that we will be able to respond resolutely to any provocations", Prime Minister Kim Hwang-Sik said today.

He said the government would spend 30 billion won (US$26 million) helping Yeonpyeong residents, most of whom fled to the mainland after the shelling.

"We will make the utmost efforts to ensure the villagers can go back home with no fear and return to work as normal," the prime minister said, promising to rebuild shattered homes and provide incentives to encourage people to return home and encourage settlement by newcomers.

South Korea and the United States last week staged their biggest-ever naval exercise off the peninsula as a warning to the North. The largest ever US-Japan war games got under way separately on Friday.

The North's bombardment, the first of civilian areas in the South since the war, came less than two weeks after it put a new and apparently operational uranium enrichment plant on show to US visitors.

The North says the plant is for peaceful purposes. But US experts and officials say it could easily be reconfigured to make weapons-grade uranium to supplement an existing plutonium stockpile.