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A group of 21 U.S. trainers and observers will participate in a South Korean live-fire drill on Yeonpyeong Island scheduled to take place sometime between Saturday and Tuesday, according to Department of Defense officials cited by the Armed Forces Press Service.

The planned drill has raised fears of further conflict on the Korean peninsula, where tensions are at their highest levels in decades. North Korea bombarded Yeonpyeong Island on Nov. 23, killing four people in the first North Korean attack on an area populated by civilians since the Korean War. North Korea claimed the shelling was a response to South Korean “provocation” of firing toward the North, which South Korea disputes.

South Korea says the upcoming exercise will not involve fire directed at the North and is meant to increase military readiness. North Korea, however, has promised to respond with force.

“The strike will play out a more serious situation than on November 23 in terms of strength and scope of the strike,” Reuters reported North Korea’s official news agency, KCNA, as saying on Friday.

South Korea said Saturday that it would go ahead with the drills despite Pyongyang’s threat. “We have a right to conduct our own military drills,” a Joint Chiefs of Staff officer said, according to The Associated Press.

The artillery drills, however, were not expected to be held over the weekend because of bad weather and would be conducted either on Monday or Tuesday, the officer said on the customary condition of anonymity, the AP reported.

South Korea said earlier this month that it would respond to future North Korean attacks with airstrikes, raising the possibility that the exercise could trigger greater conflict on the peninsula.

“If North Korea were to react to that in a negative way and fire back ... at those firing positions on the islands, that would start potentially a chain reaction of firing and counter-firing,” said U.S. Marine Corps Gen. James Cartwright, vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, according to the Defense Department release. “What you don’t want to have happen out of that is ... for us to lose control of the escalation. That’s the concern.”

Cartwright said South Korea has made sure the intent of the exercise is clear, and all firing will be directed toward water and not land. The South Korean government has published information about the planned drills on the Web “to ensure that anybody in that area knows what’s going to go on and when it’s going to go on, including a notice to mariners,” he said.

“The area [where] they’re going to conduct these live-fire drills is an established and well-used range,” Cartwright said, according to the release. “It’s not a new activity, and it’s not one that the North Koreans haven’t seen on a routine basis.”

rowlanda@pstripes.osd.mil

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