By Yoo Jee-ho
SEOUL, Aug. 5 (Yonhap) -- The South Korean military engaged in tactical maneuvering and submarine tracking exercises Thursday on the first day of its largest-ever anti-submarine drills near the western maritime border with North Korea, where its warship sank in an attack it blames on the communist neighbor.
Self-propelled guns were also fired as the country's military launched the five-day exercises, Seoul's latest response to Pyongyang's provocation. Some 4,500 troops from all four branches of the service -- army, navy, air force and marines -- have been mobilized for the maneuver that involves the 14,000-ton Dokdo amphibious landing ship, a 1,800-ton submarine and a 4,500-ton KDX-II class destroyer, plus some 50 fighter jets, according to the Joint Chiefs of Staff (JCS).Data picture
Friday's drills will include anti-submarine battles, drills against intrusions by North Korean special forces and preparations against coastal artillery offensive, it said.
This is South Korea's second naval drills in less than two weeks. In late July, Seoul and Washington held their joint naval and air exercises in the East Sea to deter North Korea from further provocations and to display the solidarity of their military alliance.
South Korea, the U.S. and their allies believe North Korea torpedoed the Cheonan, killing 46 sailors aboard. The North has denied any role in the tragedy and rebuked the accusations against it as a "sheer fabrication."
North Korea renewed its threat against the drills on Thursday, its Committee for Peaceful Reunification of the Fatherland warning "the most powerful means" of retaliation if the South triggered a conflict during the exercises. Earlier this week, the North's military command overseeing the Yellow Sea border said it would "return fire for fire" in its "powerful physical retaliation."
China, the North's strongest backer, expressed concerns about the rising tension on the Korean Peninsula. Jiang Yu, spokeswoman for the Chinese foreign ministry, called for all sides to "work hard at devoting themselves to maintaining peace and stability on the Korean Peninsula."
Jiang didn't address the location of the latest drills. Last month, China balked at the staging of joint exercises so close to its waters in the Yellow Sea, and its protests apparently forced the South and the U.S. to switch the location of their maneuvers to the East Sea.
South Korea's JCS reiterated that the latest exercises are "defensive" in nature and will prepare the South Korean military against contingencies.
"The focus of the exercises is to strengthen our response to the enemy's asymmetric provocations and also our joint operations capabilities," an official at the JCS said. "We will not tolerate any kind of provocations by the enemy, and the drills will allow us to be fully prepared for combat."
The JCS said underwater firing drills would take place close to Baengnyeong Island, South Korea's northernmost and closest island to the North in the Yellow Sea. The Cheonan went down just southwest of the island.
The military said these would be the first live-fire drills near the Northern Limit Line (NLL) since the Cheonan sinking. The NLL serves as a de factor sea border between the two Koreas. It was drawn by the United Nations at the end of the 1950-53 Korean War. But North Korea refuses to recognize it and argues it should be drawn farther south.
Prior to the Cheonan incident, there had been three bloody naval skirmishes near the NLL in 1999, 2002, and most recently in November last year. Dozens of North Korean fishing boats violate the border each year.
South Korean military officials said the drills will be held only in South Korean waters and that the North should stop issuing threats.
"Raising issue with the proper, defensive exercise is a provocation in itself," said Rear Adm. Kim Kyung-sik of the JCS. "Our armed forces will closely monitor enemy movements during these drills."
Another military official, speaking on the condition of anonymity, said "it doesn't follow logic" that North Korea has threatened physical action against South Korean military drills in South Korean waters after striking the Cheonan.
"North Korea fired a torpedo and attacked our warship operating in our own waters," the official said. "Rather than making threats, the North should frankly acknowledge its responsibility for the Cheonan attack and apologize."
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