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(2nd LD) S. Korea to hold live-fire drills despite N. Korea's harsh warning

All Headlines 20:01 February 19, 2012

(ATTN: ADDS another military official's quotes, U.N. command's observation, details in paras 11-16)

SEOUL, Feb. 19 (Yonhap) -- South Korea's military said Sunday it will hold "routine" live-fire drills early this week near the Yellow Sea border islands with North Korea, despite the North's warning of "merciless" retaliation if provoked.

The South's military notified North Korea of the planned drills near the five border islands, set for Monday, through its representatives at the truce village of Panmunjom earlier in the day, an official at the Joint Chiefs of Staff (JCS) said.

One of the South Korean islands, Yeonpyeong, was shelled by North Korea in November 2010, marking the first North Korean attack on South Korean territory since the end of the 1950-53 Korean War.

The shelling of Yeonpyeong island, which North Korea claimed was provoked by the South's firing drills at that time, sharply raised public support for a far tougher military response if the North stages a similar attack again.

"The firing drills scheduled for tomorrow are routine and aimed at maintaining our military's combat capabilities," the JCS official said on the condition of anonymity.

"We notified people living on the five islands they should evacuate into safe zones ahead of the firing drills," the official said.

Hours after the South Korean military's notification, the North's military denounced the planned drills as a "premeditated military provocation" against the North and vowed to "promptly make merciless retaliatory strikes" if the South violates its territorial waters during the drills.

"Once the group of traitors starts a reckless military provocation in those waters...and in case just a single column of water is observed in its territorial waters, the (North's) Korean People's Army will promptly make merciless retaliatory strikes," it said in a statement carried by the North's Korean Central News Agency.

The KCNA's "open notice" advised all civilians on five border islands in waters off the west cost to evacuate to safe areas before the planned naval drills on Monday morning.

It also said the Lee Myung-bak administration "should not forget the lesson" from the shelling of Yeonpyeong Island.

The North's warning came amid fresh security concerns after the North's new leader, Kim Jong-un, took the helm of Pyongyang following the December death of his father.

Many analysts have warned that the young and untested Kim, believed to be in his late 20s, could stage a provocation to help consolidate his grip on power and bolster his military credentials.

South Korea's military, however, has remained undaunted and says it will strike back if the North provokes.

"The drills will go ahead as planned regardless of North Korea," another JCS official said. "If North Korea provokes, we will hit back from the standpoint of exercising our right to self-defense."

The South Korean marines on Yeonpyeong island will mobilize K-9 Thunder 155-mm self-propelled howitzers, 81-mm mortars and other weapons, he said.

Four representatives of the U.S.-led United Nations command, which oversaw the armistice that ended the Korean war, will observe the drills, he added.

Meanwhile, South Korea and its ally United States will hold joint anti-submarine drills this week in the Yellow Sea.

South Korea and the U.S. regularly hold military exercises to bolster their readiness against a possible North Korean invasion. Pyongyang routinely denounces military drills in the South as rehearsals for a northward invasion.

Tensions remain high on the divided Korean Peninsula over the North's two deadly attacks on the South in 2010 -- the shelling of Yeonpyeong and the sinking of the Cheonan warship.

About 28,500 U.S. troops are stationed in South Korea, a legacy of the 1950-53 Korean War that ended in an armistice, not a peace treaty.

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