Last Updated: Mon Dec 20, 2010 11:34 am (KSA) 08:34 am (GMT)

South Korea holds live-fire drill as UN bickers

Diplomats said China & Russia were pushing for an ambiguous statement that would not have blamed NKorea for the crisis (File)
Diplomats said China & Russia were pushing for an ambiguous statement that would not have blamed NKorea for the crisis (File)

South Korea held a live-fire military drill on a border island and scrambled fighter jets Monday, despite North Korean threats of deadly retaliation, as U.N. diplomacy on the crisis broke down.

The drill, delayed from the weekend by bad weather, lasted almost
two hours with near constant artillery fire, some near and some distant, which shook air raid bunkers on the island of Yeonpyeong. There was no immediate North Korean response.

"Our armed forces are now on alert and fighter jets are on airborne alert," a ministry spokesman said during the exercise. Yonhap news agency said two destroyers had also been deployed in forward positions in the Yellow Sea.

On Nov. 23, the last time Seoul conducted firing drills from Yeonpyeong close to the disputed maritime border off the west coast of the peninsula, Pyongyang retaliated by shelling the island, killing two civilians and two marines in the worst attack on South Korean territory since the Korean war ended in 1953.

But amid the tension there was also a report of a potential diplomatic breakthrough, with U.S. troubleshooter Bill Richardson winning concessions from North Korea on the return of nuclear inspectors, according to CNN.

North Korea warned last week that it would strike even harder if the latest drills went ahead. China and Russia have cautioned Seoul against holding the exercise, while the United States has backed South Korea's right to hold the drills.

Failure to agree

An emergency U.N. Security Council meeting failed to agree a statement on the crisis, and Russia warned that the international community was now left without "a game plan" to counter escalating tensions.

China's deputy U.N. ambassador warned that bloodshed on the peninsula would be a "national tragedy of fratricide" for the Korean people, the Xinhua news agency reported.

But the United States has stood by South Korea's right to self-defense, and Japan Monday urged North Korea not to take any "provocative action" in response to the exercise.

The North disputes the Yellow Sea border drawn by United Nations forces after the 1950-53 Korean War. It claims the waters around Yeonpyeong as its own.

The North's military appears to be preparing for a counter-attack, removing covers from coastal artillery guns and forward-deploying some batteries, a military source told Yonhap.

But New Mexico Governor Richardson, visiting Pyongyang to try to ease tensions, won agreement from North Korea to allow U.N. Nuclear inspectors to return, according to CNN which has a team travelling with him.

Pyongyang "agreed to allow International Atomic Energy Agency personnel to return to a nuclear facility in the country and agreed to negotiate the sale of 12,000 ... fuel rods and ship them to an outside country, presumably to South Korea", CNN said, quoting correspondent Wolf Blitzer in Pyongyang.

"The North has also agreed to consider Richardson’s proposal for a military commission between the United States, North Korea and South Korea as well as a separate hotline for the Koreas' militaries."

China fends off demands

At the U.N., China fended off Western demands that its ally North Korea be publicly condemned for the November 23 artillery assault, diplomats said.

They said it even rejected a proposed statement which did not mention North Korea or the name of Yeonpyeong.

Russia had called Sunday's emergency Security Council meeting to try to prevent an escalation, but major powers failed to agree on a draft statement due to differences over whether to lay the blame on Pyongyang.

"The gaps that remain are unlikely to be bridged," said Susan Rice, the U.S. ambassador to the U.N.

Other council diplomats, however, said it was possible the council could return to the issue as early as Monday.

"Now we have a situation with very serious political tension and no game plan on the diplomatic side," said Russia's U.N. envoy Vitaly Churkin.

The foreign ministers of China and Russia held telephone talks Saturday and urged South Korea to cancel its military exercise. But Seoul's allies in Washington and Tokyo lined up behind it.

Last month's bombardment was the first of civilian areas in South Korea since the war. It sparked outrage in the South, which rushed more troops and guns to frontline islands, and vowed a forceful response to any repetition.

About 20 U.S. soldiers -- part of a 28,500-strong force stationed in the South -- are on Yeonpyeong to provide back-up to the latest drill, the U.S. military said.

Pyongyang, deriding the U.S. troops as a "human shield", threatened "decisive and merciless punishment" from its military.

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