x Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 21 January 2018

Tensions high as Seoul vows to go ahead with exercise

US governor calls for UN Security Council resolution strongly urging mutual restraint as South Korea prepares to conduct live-fire tests .

South Korean marines patrol along on Yeonpyeong island, where four people were killed in a North Korean artillery attack on November 23.
Ahn Young-joon / AP
South Korean marines patrol along on Yeonpyeong island, where four people were killed in a North Korean artillery attack on November 23. Ahn Young-joon / AP

BEIJING // Tensions on the Korean Peninsula remained high last night after Seoul vowed to press ahead with a live firing exercise that the North promised would be met with force.

Less than a month after a barrage of shelling from North Korea killed four people on the South Korean island of Yeonpyeong, Seoul insisted it would carry out test firing from the island today or tomorrow, despite threats from Pyongyang and requests from other governments for it to cancel.

North Korea was yesterday evening reported to have put military on its west coast on high alert in readiness for the exercises.

Russia and China have both urged South Korea to cancel the drills, while an emergency UN Security Council consultation session convened on Moscow's urging and due to begin yesterday evening was expected to issue a statement aimed at calming tensions.

Bill Richardson, the governor of New Mexico and a former US ambassador to the United Nations, on an unofficial visit to Pyongyang, said he hoped the UN Security Council would pass "a strong resolution" urging restraint on both sides.

"A UN resolution could provide cover for all sides that prevents aggressive military action," he said on CNN.

Mr Richardson, a regular visitor to Pyongyang who was travelling in a private capacity, said North Korea should show "maximum restraint" to the exercises. On Saturday he warned tensions had turned the peninsula into a "tinderbox".

Ahead of yesterday's Security Council meeting, Russia's envoy to the United Nations, Vitaly Churkin, said the body "must send a restraining signal" to the two Koreas and "help launch diplomatic activity with a view to resolving all issues of dispute between the two Korean sides".

Yesterday, South Korea said it would press ahead with the military exercises, which Washington has said it supports.

"The planned firing drill is part of the usual exercises conducted by our troops based on Yeonpyeong Island. The drill can be justifiable, as it will occur within our territorial waters," said a South Korean Joint Chiefs of Staff official, according to the South Korean Yonhap news agency.

"We won't take into consideration North Korean threats and diplomatic situations before holding the live-fire drill. If weather permits, it will be held as scheduled."

South Korea originally said it would carry out live-firing exercises from Yeonpyeong between December 18 and 21, but bad weather prevented them from being carried out during the past two days. Yonhap reported that Vulcan guns, 105mm light howitzers and K-9 self-propelled howitzers would be involved in the exercise.

It was similar military drills involving firing into the waters off Yeonpyeong that triggered the North's artillery barrage on November 23.

Pyongyang has insisted it would launch "unpredictable self-defensive blows" on its southern neighbour if the exercises go ahead. Some experts have said a more likely outcome however is that the North will press ahead with its own military exercises, rather than risk a full-scale conflict.

South Korea's Yonhap news agency yesterday quoted a South Korean government source as saying Pyongyang was readying its military on its west coast in advance of the expected start of the exercises.

"The North Korean artillery unit along the Yellow Sea has raised its preparedness level," the official said.

Two young marines and two elderly civilians died in the attack on Yeonpyeong, the first by North Korea on South Korean soil since the end of the Korean war in 1953.

The new South Korean defence minister, Kim Kwan-jin, has vowed to hit back more forcefully, including with air strikes, if the country suffers another attack from North Korea.

The Yeonpyeong incident, which led most of the 1,300 residents of the island to flee and left neighbourhoods as blackened rubble, came soon after the existence of a uranium-enrichment plant in North Korea was revealed by a US scientist given access to the facility.