Defense exercises raise tensions

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Defense exercises raise tensions

Tensions at the inter-Korean border rose Thursday as South Korea conducted extensive military exercises to send a message to North Korea amid its alleged plans to launch a long-range missile.

North Korea also bolstered its military capabilities at the western border.

Maritime firing drills were conducted in the eastern and western waters of the peninsula, the South Korean military said. The maritime exercises came as the North prepares to launch a long-range missile later this month, following its fourth nuclear test Jan. 6.

The Northwest Islands Defense Command under the Joint Chiefs of Staff conducted firing exercises in the waters off Baengyeong and Yeonpyeong Islands at the western border.

The troops conducted training that simulated shelling by Pyongyang and a North Korean attack on a northwestern island.

The military mobilized 1,000 troops, 40 K-9 self-propelled howitzers, armored vehicles, attack helicopters and other artillery. The Army, Navy and Air Force collaborated in the exercises.

The 1st and 2nd Fleets of the Navy conducted anti-submarine drills in eastern and western waters. The exercises were designed to detect a North Korean submarine and destroy the target using depth bombs. Maritime patrol aircraft also tested antisubmarine bombs.

For the exercises, the military mobilized 20 vessels including 3,200-ton destroyers. Submarines, maritime patrol aircraft, Lynx attack helicopters and KF-16 fighter jets also participated in the drill, as well as the Navy’s special operations forces.

The Air Force continued exercises aimed at countering a possible North Korean attack. The biannual war simulation involving dozens of fighter jets started Jan. 29 is scheduled to end today.

According to the Air Force, some 50 combat jets including the F-15Ks, KF-16s, FA-50s, F-4Es and F-5s participated in the exercise. About 370 Air Force troops, including 102 combat pilots, were mobilized.

During the exercises, the Air Force checked its readiness in simulated ground-to-air attacks by the North. The South Korean troops were trained to take out targets in North Korea, which was considered the point of origin in the simulated attack. The pilots also take part in a simulated attack by North Korean drones.

The U.S. Forces Korea also issued an apparent warning to North Korea. It said Thursday that members of the American Special Operations Forces, known for their successful high-value target raid missions, had arrived for joint training with South Korean troops.

According to the U.S. Forces Korea, elements from the 1st Special Forces Group (Airborne) and the 75th Ranger Regiment comprise the rotational special operations forces and will participate in the joint exercises with their Korean special operations partners.

The 75th Ranger Regiment is an elite unit of the U.S. military. Its members participated in the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, in air assaults, special reconnaissance, personnel recovery mission as well as high-value target raids. The 1st Special Forces Group (Airborne) mainly operates in the Pacific region.

The U.S. Forces Korea said American air, maritime and ground special operations forces conducted joint exercises with South Korean partners here throughout 2015 and that the exercises enable both countries to leverage their capabilities to deter regional asymmetric aggression and maintain peace on the peninsula.

But while military activities were bolstered in the South, North Korea also beefed up its capabilities at the western border, particularly near Yeonpyeong Island, where it staged a deadly provocation in 2010.

According to a South Korean military source, North Korea recently deployed 122-millimeter multiple-rocket launchers on Gal Island, near the western border, and set up firing posts.

The uninhabited islet is located only 4.5 kilometers northwest of Yeonpyeong Island. The multiple-rocket launchers have a range of 20 kilometers (12.4 miles); North Korea used them to shell Yeonpyeong Island in November 2010.

The South considers the North’s mobilization of artillery on Gal Island a serious threat.

The source said North Korea also deployed additional surveillance systems on Ari Island, also located near Yeonpyeong Island.

“After its fourth nuclear test, the North actively conducted military exercises near the western maritime border,” the source said. “If North Korea stages a provocation, we will harshly and quickly retaliate to deliver severe consequences.”

BY SER MYO-JA [ser.myoja@joongang.co.kr]

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