POCHEON, South Korea — South Korea mobilized troops, tanks, helicopters and fighter jets for its largest-ever wintertime military drills Thursday, a show of force that comes a month after North Korea’s deadly shelling of a front-line island.
The drills, set to begin Thursday afternoon at training grounds in mountainous Pocheon near the Koreas’ heavily fortified border, signalled South Korea’s determination to demonstrate and hone its military strength at the risk of further escalation with North Korea.
Jeeps wove their way up a winding road to the military base, passing armed soldiers and a ski resort where skiers and snowboarders were enjoying fresh snowfall. A thick fog hung over the area.
Exactly one month ago, routine South Korean live-fire drills from Yeonpyeong Island in the Yellow Sea triggered a shower of North Korean artillery that killed two marines and two construction workers. It was the first military attack on a civilian area since the 1950-53 Korean War ended in a truce.
North Korea, which claims the waters around the South Korean-held island lying just 7 miles (11 kilometres) from its shores as its territory, accused the South of sparking the exchange by ignoring Pyongyang’s warnings against staging the live-fire drills near their disputed maritime border.
Amid international concerns of all-out war on the tense Korean peninsula, South Korea has pushed ahead with military exercises over the past several weeks, including live-fire drills from Yeonpyeong Island and Monday’s land-based exercises.
Thursday’s drills will be the biggest-ever wintertime firing exercises staged by South Korea’s army and air force, a military army statement said.
Forty-seven similar exercises have taken place this year but Thursday’s manoeuvrs were scheduled in response to the North Korean attack, an army officer said on condition of anonymity, citing department rules.
“We will thoroughly punish the enemy if it provokes us again as with the shelling of Yeonpyeong Island,” Brig. Gen. Ju Eun-sik, chief of the South Korean army’s 1st Armored Brigade, said in a statement Wednesday.
There was no immediate response from North Korea, which has shown restraint in recent days.
The two Koreas remain technically at war because their 1950s conflict ended in a cease-fire, not a peace treaty.
The military tension over the past month has been the worst in more than a decade, and comes on the heels of the March sinking of a South Korean warship that Seoul blames on Pyongyang, but which North Korea denies attacking. Forty-six sailors died in that incident.
Thursday’s air force and army drills will involve 800 troops, F-15K and KF-16 jet fighters, K-1 tanks, AH-1S attack helicopters and K-9 self-propelled guns at military training grounds in Pocheon, about 30 miles (45 kilometres) north of Seoul and about 20 miles (30 kilometres) from the North Korean border.
The White House dismissed concerns that the new drills would escalate tensions.
“I think exercises that have been announced well in advance, that are transparent, that are defensive in nature, should in no way engender a response from the North Koreans,” White House spokesman Robert Gibbs told reporters Wednesday in Washington.
South Korea’s navy also was conducting annual firing and anti-submarine exercises off the east coast.