Firing Drill Increases Tensions in Korea
By EVAN RAMSTAD
SEOUL—South Korea on Monday morning prepared to test artillery from an island North Korea attacked last month, and ordered residents into bomb shelters in case the North carried out on threats to open fire at the drill.
The test on Yeonpyeong Island is a pivotal moment in the two Koreas' fractious relationship, which has been drawn to the brink of open fighting by North Korea's apparent effort to redraw the maritime boundary in the Yellow Sea off the countries' west coast.
South Korean authorities urged residents on four other islands in the disputed maritime area to also seek shelter. North Korea on Friday and Saturday issued several statements that said it would lash out at South Korea if it again tested artillery on Yeonpyeong.
The United Nations Security Council, meeting Sunday in New York, didn't agree on a statement to defuse the dispute. China blocked a statement that would have blamed North Korea for the attack on Yeonpyeong Island last month that set off the current crisis.
The Security Council met at Russia's request, underscoring pressure on South Korea from both Moscow and Beijing to cancel the test.
U.S. officials have said North Korea shouldn't view South Korea's coming drills as a threat. A State Department official said Sunday that the U.S. was supporting the South Koreans on whatever decisions they made concerning the military drill. Pentagon officials in Washington didn't respond Sunday to requests for comment.
North Korea attacked Yeonpyeong Island on Nov. 23, a few hours after South Korea last conducted an artillery test on the island. The attack killed four South Koreans, two of them civilians. Until then, South Korean drills from the island had been a routine for decades. The South's marine post on the island guards a water passage from North Korea to the South's major port city of Incheon.
Comments over the weekend:
South Korea: Called the test 'usual and justifiable,' and said 'We won't take into consideration North Korean threats and diplomatic situations before holding the live-fire drill.
North Korea: 'It is necessary to clearly state in advance that the hostile forces will be accountable for the second Yonphyong Island incident in the light of the fact that they tried to paint the first Yonphyong Island clash as a 'provocation' of the DPRK,' the Democratic People's Republic of Korea.
With the new test, South Korea is walking a tightrope by trying to defend waters it has controlled since the Korean War of the 1950s in a way that doesn't escalate into more fighting, which would threaten the safety of its 50 million people and the vibrancy of its economy, the world's 15th biggest. Asian markets opened mostly lower Monday as tensions mounted. South Korea's Kospi Composite fell 1.1%, and Japan's Nikkei Stock Average was off 0.1% in early trading.
On Sunday, South Korean defense officials called the planned test "usual and justifiable."
"We won't take into consideration North Korean threats and diplomatic situations before holding the live-fire drill. If weather permits, it will be held as scheduled," a spokesman for South Korea's joint chiefs of staff said.
By late Sunday afternoon, according to Western diplomats at the U.N., Russia had agreed with the U.S. and other members on a common statement on the crisis that, among other things, blamed the North for an attack on Yeonpyeong Island last month. However, China was refusing to allow mention of the island in a common statement, according to the diplomats.
Diplomats and analysts say China is growing increasingly frustrated by North Korea's behavior but worries its relations with Pyongyang would be irreparably damaged if it blamed North Korea for the artillery raid, or the sinking of the Cheonan, a South Korean navy ship, in March.
Beijing's proposed solution to the crisis is to revive the so-called "six-party" talks on North Korea between China, Japan, the U.S., Russia and North and South Korea.
After the council failed to act Sunday night, Vitaly Churkin, Russia's ambassador to the U.N., warned, "Within hours there may be a serious aggravation of tension, a serious conflict for that matter. … So we reiterate a call for restraint on both sides."
Susan Rice, the U.S. ambassador to the U.N., said she did not believe it possible to close the remaining "gaps" for an agreement.
New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson, a former U.S. ambassador to the U.N. and an ally of President Barack Obama, met over the weekend with leaders in Pyongyang, the North Korean capital, where he urged calm.
In an interview with CNN from Pyongyang on Saturday, Mr. Richardson said he urged North Korean officials to show "maximum restraint" in response to South Korea's planned military drills.
"Right now, my objective is to say, 'tamp things down, let the routine exercise take place, if it does,' " he said.
Acting in an unofficial capacity after being invited by North Korean officials, Mr. Richardson said there was "enormous tension" on the peninsula and the "potential for miscalculation."
On Saturday, the North Korean Foreign Ministry issued a statement saying that "It is necessary to clearly state in advance that the hostile forces will be accountable for the second Yonphyong Island incident in the light of the fact that they tried to paint the first Yonphyong Island clash as a 'provocation' of the DPRK." The Democratic People's Republic of Korea, as North Korea is officially known, uses a different spelling of Yeonpyeong.
Amid all the official statements and diplomatic maneuvering over the weekend, there were few signs of tension in South Korea.
There have been no signs of unusual troop movement or war preparations in North Korea, a person familiar with military surveillance of North Korea said. And, while North Korea has issued several threats of retaliation if a new test is conducted, most came from relatively low-level agencies and news publications rather than the offices associated with its dictator, Kim Jong Il.
Nonetheless, according to South Korea's Yonhap news agency on Sunday, North Korea had raised the military readiness of its artillery unit along the west coast.
U.S. military officials have in recent weeks attempted to send a message to South Korea not to escalate hostilities. But they haven't attempted to stop South Korea from conducting the exercises.
In a visit to Seoul earlier this month, Adm. Michael Mullen, chairman of the U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff, warned that in times of high tensions, "normal" exercises should be scrutinized carefully, and that care should be taken not to expand hostilities.
Still, many American officials believe the exercises are needed both to deter the North and to prepare South Korea. Some officials remain distressed about certain South Korean defense capabilities, particularly the South's ability to counter a submarine attack and its artillery skills. The artillery counterbarrage from Yeonpyeong Island on Nov. 23 failed to do much damage to North Korean artillery tubes, according to some publicly released satellite photos.
Recent South Korean and joint exercises have been designed to improve those skills.
South Korea has controlled Yeonpyeong Island and the waters around it since before the Korean War and placed artillery positions after the war to defend water passages to the South Korean port city of Incheon.
North Korea has repeatedly said it fired on the island because the South's artillery test on Nov. 23 lobbed shells into its territory. Seoul countered that it fired away from North Korean waters on that day. Later, Pyongyang claimed it controls all the waters around the island and said that any artillery testing from Yeonpyeong is an assault on its territory.
While South Korea is betting North Korea will do nothing in response to the drill, it has proceeded carefully. The South Korean military briefly planned to hold such a drill a week after the attack. Instead, it rebuilt the damaged marine post on the island and reinforced its artillery guns with multiple rocket launchers. Last Thursday, the military said the drill would happen as soon as Saturday, but then pushed it to Monday, citing weather conditions.
The U.S.-led United Nations Command, responsible for overseeing the armistice agreement, will observe the drill, with about 20 Americans and a handful of soldiers from other countries on hand.
South Korean marines unload equipment at a port on Yeonpyeong Island on Sunday in preparation for the live-fire artillery drill.
North Korea has disputed the Yellow Sea boundary for more than a decade with naval incursions and has repeatedly stated a desire to redraw the inter-Korean maritime border that was created in the armistice agreement that ended hostilities in 1953.
Its reasons for escalating the matter with the Nov. 23 attack are unknown. Analysts have speculated that North Korean leader Kim Jong Il is trying to solidify support for a power transition to his son Kim Jong Eun and force Seoul to restart financial assistance that was cut off in 2008.
Before announcing the new test on Yeonpyeong, South Korean defense officials said they would strike back at any further attacks by the North. They haven't disclosed plans for a counterattack if North Korea reacts to this week's test.
—Jeremy Page, Joe Lauria, Adam Entous and Julian E. Barnes contributed to this article.
Write to Evan Ramstad at email@example.com