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(2nd LD) S. Korea to stage live-fire drill on border island shelled by N. Korea

All Headlines 17:48 December 16, 2010

(ATTN: UPDATES throughout with fresh quotes in first eight paras; ADDS North Korean leader's visit to a military units in final three paras)

SEOUL, Dec. 16 (Yonhap) -- South Korea's military said Thursday it plans to hold a live-fire artillery drill this week or early next week on a front-line island devastated by North Korea's bombardment last month, in what would be the first such maneuver on Yeonpyeong Island since the attack.

Some 20 military personnel from the U.S. forces in South Korea will help South Korean troops in the one-day drill to be held between Saturday and Tuesday by providing medical, communications and intelligence support, officials said.

Members of the Military Armistice Commission of the U.S.-led United Nations Command (UNC), which supervises the armistice agreement that ended the 1950-53 Korean War, will also observe the upcoming drill.

"The military decided to hold a one-day live-fire drill on Yeonpyeong Island between Dec. 18 and 21," said Col. Lee Bung-woo, spokesman for the Joint Chiefs of Staff (JCS). "The exact timing of the drill will be fixed later after considering weather and other relevant conditions."

The JCS spokesman said artillery guns in the planned drill will be aimed away from the North, as usual.

"U.S. forces from the U.S. Forces Korea are participating in the defensive live-fire exercise with approximately 20 U.S. forces members proving commanding control, medical, communication and intelligence support to the live-fire exercise that would be going on," Col. Robert Givens, deputy chief of military operations for the USFK, told reporters.

About 28,500 U.S. troops are stationed in the South, a legacy of the Korean War.

Col. Kurt Taylor, secretary of the UNC commission, said, "This is a routine training and it is a routine observation that the United Nations Command provide to ensure the armistice compliance."

"It is normally scheduled by request of the United Nations Command for the areas being observed," Taylor said, adding that the UNC has observed the South Korean military's trainings on a regular basis and the "armistice agreement applies to all territory in Korea of land, sea and air."

North Korea justified its Nov. 23 attack on Yeonpyeong near the tense Yellow Sea border by claiming it was a retaliation to a similar drill by South Korean troops during which the South dropped shells into its waters.

The South's military said it was conducting a routine drill at the time of the attack, accusing the North of staging a premeditated and inhumane military aggression that killed two civilians and as many marines.

Since the attack, the South's military has delayed its pre-scheduled live-fire drill on Yeonpyeong, citing concerns about the safety of the island's remaining residents and weather conditions.

When asked about the safety of some 120 residents on Yeonpyeong, Lee said, "They will be advised to leave the island before the drill starts. If some of them want to stay, they will be taken to shelters before the drill."

Lee said the South's military "will firmly and strongly respond" should North Korea attempt provocations during the drill. He declined to give details on military assets that will be mobilized for the drill.

Days after the Nov. 23 attack, South Korea and the U.S. staged four days of large-scale naval drills off the Yellow Sea with a nuclear-power U.S. aircraft carrier taking part. The South's military has also conducted naval firing drills off all three coasts since the bombardment, but none have taken place near the Yellow Sea islands.

North Korea has warned of "a merciless counter-attack" if South Korean shells intrude into its territorial waters during the drills.

The attack on Yeonpyeong marked the North's first strike on a civilian area in the South's territory since the end of the Korean War. Most of the some 1,300 residents on the fishing island fled to the mainland after the attack.

To beef up defense on Yeonpyeong, which has a base for the marines, the JCS has deployed surface-to-air missiles, more K-9 self-propelled howitzers and 130-millimeter multiple-launch rocket systems.

North Korea fired about 170 artillery shells onto Yeonpyeong, and South Korean marines stationed on the island managed to fire just 80 rounds in return.

South Korean officials have vowed to hit back hard at the North, including the use of air power, if it attacks again.

The North's state media reported earlier Thursday that the country's top leader Kim Jong-il inspected a military unit, the first such visit since the attack on Pyongyang.

The report did not say when Kim made the visit.

Kim was "greatly satisfied to learn that the service persons of the unit are performing their guard duties in a responsible manner, keeping themselves highly vigilant against the aggressive moves of the U.S. imperialists," the North's Korean Central News Agency said.

kdh@yna.co.kr
(END)

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