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S. Korea, U.S. to end annual military drill amid tension
By Kim Eun-jung
SEOUL, April 29 (Yonhap) -- South Korea and the United States are set to complete a two-month joint military drill, the Combined Forces Command said Monday, amid high inter-Korean tensions due to the North Korea's warlike threats and an endangered joint industrial complex in the communist nation.

   The Foal Eagle exercise, which began in March after Pyongyang's Feb. 12 nuclear test that invited additional U.N. sanctions to be slapped against the isolated nation, has heightened tension on the Korean Peninsula as the communist country angrily responded to the exercise that involved nuclear-capable bombers and stealth F-22 jets sent from overseas U.S. bases. The exercise officially ends Tuesday.

   Although Pyongyang has routinely called the annual training a rehearsal for a northward invasion, its rhetoric turned more hostile this year under young leader Kim Jong-un, even threatening nuclear strikes against the South and the U.S.

   In early March, the North announced that it had nullified the 60-year-old armistice agreement that ended the Korean War, though Seoul and the U.N. said the pact cannot be discarded unilaterally.

   Further raising tensions, Pyongyang in early April barred South Korean workers from entering the Kaesong industrial complex, leading Seoul to pull its workers from the site after Pyongyang rejected its ultimatum to join formal negotiations on restarting the stalled operations.

   Built in 2004 just north of the border, the industrial complex has served as a rare symbol of inter-Korea cooperation and a valued source of hard currency for the impoverished North.

   In response to the exercise, the North has placed two intermediate-range Musudan missiles and several other Scud missiles on its east coast and hidden them in underground facilities since early April, sparking speculations that it may conduct a provocative launch.

   While the unpredictable regime has not fired its missiles yet, Japan's Asahi Shimbun on Monday reported that North Korea has stopped sending signals from its wireless telemetry system designed to record missile flights and ground-based radar stations since April 20.
Seoul military officials said the signals have been spotted intermittently and they are looking into the true intention of the North's latest activities, while maintaining high military readiness.

   "Signals have been on and off, but the situation comes to an end only when (the North) withdraws (its missiles)," defense ministry spokesman Kim Min-seok said in a daily briefing. "It is hard to grasp the North's intention whether it is for real or for manipulation."

   Most recently, North Korea was seen preparing to conduct a large-scale air and land combined forces exercise along its Yellow Sea coast, according to military sources, as it lets loose a steady barrage of verbal attacks against joint military drills in the South.

   The North's military also replaced Byun In-sun, the commander of the Fourth Division of the Hwanghae-based army corps, just north of the tensely guarded maritime border, with two-star general Lee Sung-kook, the spokesman said, without elaborating on the recent reshuffle.

   Lee's previous posts are not yet known, but military officials speculate that he may be one of few military leaders trusted by ruler Kim Jong-un considering the strategic importance of the heavily guarded region where several deadly clashes have taken place in the past decade.

   The Fourth Division is blamed for shelling a border island of Yeonpyeong in November 2010, killing four people, and also sinking the South Korean vessel Cheonan taking the lives of 46 sailors in the same year.

   The Koreas remain technically at war after the 1950-53 Korean War ended in an armistice. About 28,500 U.S. soldiers are stationed here to deter against the North Korean threat.

   ejkim@yna.co.kr
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