South Korea preparing for massive sea, land drills
SEOUL — South Korea moved hundreds of troops, fighter jets, tanks and attack helicopters near the heavily armed border with the North in preparation for massive new military drills as tensions continue to simmer following last month’s North Korean artillery attack that left four dead.
“We will completely punish the enemy if it provokes us again like the shelling of Yeonpyeong Island,” said Brig. Gen. Ju Eun-sik, chief of the army’s 1st armored brigade, according to The Associated Press.
South Korea’s navy began annual four-day firing and anti-submarine exercises Wednesday off the country’s less-tense east coast. This will be at least the third time South Korea has staged significant drills since the Nov. 23 attack on the island.
The U.S. military will play no formal role in either of the exercises, according to a U.S. Army official. Furthermore, no extraordinary defensive measures have been taken in recent days.
U.S. forces remain on their normal “high level of readiness,” said 2nd Infantry Division spokesman Maj. Will Griffin.
“Obviously, we have maintained a level of situational awareness,” Griffin said, given the attack of the island and recent North Korean threats. “Over the past few days, we’ve watched the situation very closely … and we’re still maintaining that posture of a high level of readiness.”
Life on U.S. military bases around South Korea appear to be going on pretty much as usual, with servicemembers Christmas shopping at the exchange, golfers braving the cold base courses and even the Dallas Cowboy cheerleaders planning for a series of appearances in the days ahead.
“No one is doing anything unusual,” U.S. Forces Korea spokesman David Oten said.
South Korean forces will conduct Thursday’s drill in Pocheon, roughly halfway between Seoul and the DMZ, and include 800 troops, F-15K and KF-16 jet fighters, K-1 tanks, AH-1S attack helicopters and K-9 self-propelled guns, the South Korean army said in a statement.
The training — the 48th of its kind this year — will be the largest wintertime joint firing exercise that South Korea’s army and air force have staged, the statement said.
South Korea had planned to conduct only 47 drills this year but decided to conduct one more because of continuing tension with North Korea, an army officer told The AP on condition of anonymity, citing department rules.
The South Korean naval exercise off the east coast of the peninsula is reportedly being staged about 60 miles south of the maritime border with the North, and involves six ships and anti-submarine helicopters.
North Korea did not follow through with threats to retaliate when plans were announced for a live-fire drill held Monday on Yeonpyeong Island, off the west coast of the peninsula, an exercise in which about 20 U.S. soldiers and Marines participated in that exercise.
In fact, North Korean officials have been somewhat conciliatory this week, indicating to visiting New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson that the rogue nation was prepared to consider ways to work with the South on restoring security along the border.
The AP reported that Richardson praised Pyongyang for refraining from retaliation and said his visit to the North provided an opening for a resumption of negotiations aimed at dismantling North Korea’s nuclear program. North Korea pulled out of six-nation talks to provide Pyongyang with aid in exchange for disarmament in April 2009, but since has said it is willing to resume them.
The White House, however, rejected the idea, saying Pyongyang needed to change its “belligerent” behavior first and was not “even remotely ready” for negotiations.
Stars and Stripes reporter Jon Rabiroff contributed to this story.