YEONPYEONG ISLAND, South Korea: South Korea vowed Saturday to 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 harder.
“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.”
On Yeonpyeong, focus of the latest flare-up which has sparked regional alarm, propaganda balloons were launched Saturday but no artillery shells.
The one-day firing practice scheduled sometime between December 18-21 may be delayed till early next week when the weather is expected to improve, the Yonhap news agency quoted a military source as saying.
The North on Friday threatened a new and deadlier attack if the South's marines launch shells into what the North claims as its own waters.
“It will be deadlier than what was made on November 23 in terms of the powerfulness and sphere of the strike,” it said.
US politician Bill Richardson, who is visiting Pyongyang, described the situation as a “tinderbox”.
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.
Last month's 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 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 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.
Anti-Pyongyang activists launched giant balloons carrying some 200,000 leaflets denouncing the attack towards the North's coastline 12 km (seven miles) away.
“Strike Kim Jong-Il and Kim Jong-Un who attacked South Korea,” read one, in reference to Kim's youngest son Jong-Un, the heir apparent to the leader.
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 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.”
Richardson, a veteran troubleshooter with Pyongyang, said he urged North Korean officials 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.
Analyst Andrei Lankov said that for the first time in decades, a new war on the peninsula 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”.
He said the South in recent decades had shown “almost inhuman patience” in the face of regular provocations — reflecting the grim reality that half its people live in range of the North's artillery.
Channel News Asia