North still unsettled by South’s defensive drills

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North still unsettled by South’s defensive drills

Despite signs of thawing inter-Korean ties amid talk of family reunions, North Korea asked South Korea not to hold routine gunfire exercises scheduled yesterday on the Yellow Sea.

Pyongyang went so far as to threaten South Korea by saying that proceeding with the drills would “cause serious aftermath,” the Ministry of Defense said yesterday.

“North Korea, under its National Defense Commission, sent a message spoken over the military telephone hotline yesterday afternoon concerning the marine gunfire drills,” Kim Min-seok, a spokesman with the Defense Ministry, said in a briefing yesterday. “We sent a message of response via telephone.”

South Korea stressed in the message that the drills “are regularly carried out in our own territorial waters” and should not be associated with the planned reunions for families separated during the 1950-53 Korean War.

The ministry added that the South has maintained solid military preparedness in case of an attack by North Korea; should the North initiate one, the South will pursue strong retaliation.

As planned, the South Korean Army conducted the gunfire exercise under the leadership of the marine forces deployed to Yeonpyeong and Baeknyeong islands on the Yellow Sea yesterday afternoon.

With the conciliatory mood between the two Koreas in mind, South Korea has planned to curtail the level of its annual Key Resolve and Foal Eagle military drills, slated to begin in the last week of February. Both are jointly held by the South Korean and U.S. armies.

Even though the final decision on the scale of weapons and troops is up to the U.S. Army, Kim said it is certain that B-2 stealth bombers, B-52 jet-powered strategic bombers and a formidable nuclear-powered submarine - which were all deployed last year at South Korea’s request - will not be utilized.

“The drills last year exceptionally mobilized the B-52 bomber and others from the U.S. because North Korea dramatically escalated tension,” said a source with the South Korean Army. “We will lower the level of armed forces to that of previous years.”

South Korea will soon make its plans official with North Korea and China, he added, to ensure that upcoming family reunions will go smoothly and that the drills don’t further provoke North Korea.

At this time last year, North Korea advanced its military tension stepwise. The state announced that it had conducted its third nuclear test in February and declared void the nonaggression pacts between the Koreas on March 8, 2013. The North’s unilateral shutdown of the Kaesong Industrial Complex followed in April. Defense Minister Kim Kwan-jin reached out to the United States for assistance.

“The principle that we would take a corresponding measure if North Korea throws out military threats remains unchanged,” said an official with the Defense Ministry. “But we don’t need to stimulate North Korea in advance.”

He added that the lineup of the drills could change if North Korea suspends family reunions or threatens to escalate military tensions.

Key Resolve is a command post exercise that involves computer-based simulations without the mobilization of the armies or their equipment. It usually takes place over two weeks starting late February. The government has yet to determine the date.

Approximately 200,000 South Korean soldiers and 28,000 U.S. forces are based here. About 10,000 American soldiers from overseas are expected to participate.

The Foal Eagle drills are performed outdoor from early March until late April involving noncombatant evacuation operations as well as combat operations and anti-infiltration activities.

Both drills are defensive in nature even though North Korea has labeled them as “war rehearsals.”

BY SEO JI-EUN, JUNG YONG-SOO [spring@joongang.co.kr]

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