x Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 24 January 2018

South Korea holds biggest-ever civil defence drill

South Korea carries out its biggest-ever civil defence drill, amid high tensions with North Korea.

SEOUL // South Korea on Wednesday carried out its biggest-ever civil defence drill, amid high tensions over North Korea's deadly artillery attack last month and its nuclear programs.

Sirens wailed across the country at 2pm (0500 GMT) to signal the start of the 15-minute exercise. Most traffic halted on Seoul's main street, Sejongno, and elsewhere in the bustling city centre.

The National Emergency Management Agency, or NEMA, said the nationwide evacuation drill was the first of its kind since a civil defense law was passed in 1975.

Under the scenario, 12 jet fighters were set to scream overhead to simulate air strikes by the North, and pedestrians were to be ushered into shelters.

Pavements emptied in the capital, but it wasn't immediately clear how many took refuge in shelters.

"The special nationwide evacuation drill is aimed at dealing effectively with a real situation like North Korea's artillery attack on Yeonpyeong Island," NEMA said in a statement.

"Public concern has been growing over North Korea's provocations," it said, citing continued military threats, high tensions in the Yellow Sea near the disputed border and the possibility of a third nuclear test by Pyongyang.

The North's Nov. 23 bombardment of the border island killed four people, including civilians. It was the first attack on civilian-populated areas since the 1950-53 war.

According to plans for the drill, all road and pedestrian traffic in cities would be halted for 15 minutes. School classes would be suspended, with students and teachers told to take shelter.

People at home were advised to switch off gas and electricity and to move into underground shelters. Residents of high-rise buildings were urged to take the stairs instead of elevators.

Ships and airline flights weren't affected. Trains and cars using expressways were urged to slow down.

At seven Seoul subway stations, training involving firefighters, soldiers and government officials was to be conducted. NEMA was to check emergency kits at 25,724 state-designated shelters nationwide.

In the border city of Paju, stage agencies were to conduct training against a mock attack by North Korean chemical weapons.

South Korea, which has remained technically at war with the communist North since their conflict 60 years ago, usually conducts much smaller drills involving the sounding of sirens several times a year.

In recent years, these have been widely ignored by the public.