(ATTN: ADDS details about PSI exercise in paras 5-11, byline)
By Yi Wonju
SEOUL, May 24 (Yonhap) -- South Korea will host a high-level meeting of countries committed to preventing the trafficking of weapons of mass destruction (WMD) for the first time next week, the foreign ministry said Wednesday, amid heightened tension over North Korea's weapons testing.
The high-level forum of the Proliferation Security Initiative (PSI) will be held next Tuesday on the country's southern resort island of Jeju, followed by the Eastern Endeavor 23 exercise the following day in an effort to strengthen capabilities to counter WMD proliferation.
Delegates from over 70 countries will participate in the meeting, including the United States, Japan and Australia. Bonnie Jenkins, undersecretary of state for arms control and international security at the U.S. State Department, will also join the session.
The exercise will involve WMD counter-proliferation activities, including maritime interception and seizure operations. The participating delegates will observe the exercise from the 14,500-ton ROKS Marado amphibious landing ship, according to the ministry.
The drill is set to take place in the international waters southeast of South Korea's Jeju. South Korea, the U.S., Australia, Japan, Canada and Singapore will join the exercise led by the South Korean Navy's Maritime Task Flotilla Seven.
The participating countries will mobilize a total of seven vessels and six aircraft, and they plan to form a "multinational coordination center" for cooperation in the sharing of information and other maritime procedures.
A Seoul official said that the PSI exercise does not target any particular nation, but a prevailing view has been that it will help enhance concerted efforts to forestall the possibility of North Korea's WMD proliferation.
The exercise will start with procedures to disseminate information on a vessel suspected of carrying WMDs. Then, a South Korean P-3 surveillance plane will track it down in a procedure followed by the on-board search operations by South Korean and U.S. Coast Guard personnel and others.
Some personnel will take due safety steps if there are any suspicious items found on the vessel. The exercise will end when the vessel is brought to a nearby port.
Following the exercise, South Korean Defense Minister Lee Jong-sup aboard the ROKS Marado is set to review the participating vessels, including South Korea's ROKS Wang Geon destroyer, the U.S.' USS Milius destroyer, Japan's JS Hamagiri destroyer and Australia's HMAS Anzac frigate.
The Japanese warship is expected to hoist the ensign of the Japan Maritime Self-Defense Force, which critics say could trigger a historical controversy as it looks akin to the Rising Sun Flag seen as symbolic of Japan's past militarism.
The PSI was launched in 2003 under the George W. Bush administration to stop the trafficking of WMDs, their delivery systems, and related materials. The PSI holds a high level political meeting every five years to review and set guidelines for the initiative.
The U.S. initiated the Asia-Pacific PSI exercises in 2014, and participating countries have hosted their own exercises, like Eastern Endeavor in South Korea, Pacific Protector in Australia and Pacific Shield in Japan.
Last year, the U.S. hosted the five-day Fortune Guard 22 in Honolulu in September, which brought together 21 countries, including South Korea.
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