POCHEON, South Korea — South Korean tanks fired artillery and fighter jets zoomed by to drop bombs Thursday in the military’s largest air-and-ground firing drills of the year — a show of force a month after a deadly North Korean artillery attack.
The drills, at training grounds in mountainous Pocheon about 20 miles (30 kilometres) from 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.
President Lee Myung-bak, while separately visiting a front-line army base near the Koreas’ eastern land border, vowed a strong response to any new attacks by North Korea.
“I had thought that we could safeguard peace if we had patience, but that wasn’t the case,” Lee told troops, according to his office. “Now we should have a strong response to (North Korea’s provocations), so that we can safeguard peace, deter aggression and prevent a war.”
On a cold, foggy day in Pocheon, meanwhile, tanks raced down mountain roads firing artillery rounds. The boom of cannons echoed through the valley and the hills erupted in smoke. Rockets streamed through the air and slammed into the side of a hill as helicopters overhead fired at targets and F-15 jet fighters dropped bombs.
The drills, which lasted less than 45 minutes, were the armed forces’ largest joint firing exercises this year, and the biggest-ever wintertime air and ground firing exercises in terms of the number of weapons mobilized and fired, government and army officials said on condition of anonymity, citing department rules.
Forty-seven similar exercises have taken place this year, but Thursday’s manoeuvrs were scheduled in response to the North Korean attack, according to army officials.
The latest drills were aimed at bolstering South Korea’s capability of “destroying the enemy at a single stroke by paralyzing its combat capability with our powerful firepower and manoeuvring equipment,” Brig. Gen. Joo Eun-sik, chief of the South Korean army’s 1st Armored Brigade, told reporters at the training site.
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 worries 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 Thursday’s exercises.
North Korea issued a statement calling the South Korean drills “provocative” and “offensive,” state-run media said. However, the statement, carried by the official Korean Central News Agency, did not threaten retaliation.
China — North Korea’s only major ally — called again for restraint on Thursday.
“The current situation remains highly complicated and sensitive,” Chinese Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Jiang Yu told a regular briefing. “We appeal to the relevant parties to keep calm, exercise restraint, and adopt responsible attitudes and do more to ease the situation and safeguard peace and stability on the peninsula,”
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 soared, and comes on the heels of the March sinking of a South Korean warship that a Seoul-led international investigation blamed on Pyongyang, but which North Korea denies. Forty-six sailors died.
South Korea’s navy also was conducting annual anti-submarine exercises off the east coast.
In Pocheon, about 800 soldiers and citizens, including schoolchildren in bright yellow jackets, were invited to watch the drills. They sat on stadium-style seats lining the side of a mountain above the valley where the drills were held as military music played over loud speakers.
“We are facing a crisis because of North Korea, so I came to see this air and ground operation. I want to feel and see the level of South Korea’s armed forces,” said Kim Tae-dong, 70. “Another North Korean provocation will happen. We should prepare our military perfectly for that.”