(4th LD) N. Korea conducts live-fire drill near western maritime border
By Kim Eun-jung
SEOUL, April 29 (Yonhap) -- North Korea staged a live-fire drill near the western maritime border Tuesday without provoking the South to fire back as none of the shells fell south of the boundary, the Joint Chiefs of Staff (JCS) said.
The North fired about 50 artillery shells from two coastal bases for about 10 minutes starting at 2 p.m. The drill came hours after the North notified the South that it would carry out the exercise in waters north of the Northern Limit Line (NLL) in the Yellow Sea.
Following the announcement, South Korea has stepped up military readiness by dispatching warships and early warning surveillance aircraft, as well as fighter jets, near the area to prepare for a potential clash.
"The North's shells fell in waters about 3 kilometers north of the NLL," JCS spokesman Eom Hyo-sik said. "The South Korean military is currently monitoring North Korean artillery units, while maintaining high military readiness."
Residents on five northwestern border islands were advised to take shelter in evacuation centers during the drill. The evacuation order was lifted at around 3:20 p.m., the JCS said.
Residents of a western border island watch television news while taking shelter in an evacuation center while North Korea is carrying out a live-fire drill near the maritime border on April 29, 2014. (Yonhap)
The North carried out a shelling drill on March 31 near the same region while South Korea and the U.S. were carrying out their annual joint military exercise.
The last exercise sharply stoked tensions as the two Koreas exchanged artillery fire across the western maritime border after some of the North's shells fell into southern waters.
Seoul's defense ministry considered the North's drill in the volatile region as a "provocative act," saying it is looking into Pyongyang's intention behind the exercise.
"The North's conducting shelling drill toward southern waters implies its provocative nature," ministry spokesman Kim Min-seok said in a briefing ahead of the drill. "We are carefully monitoring North Korea's exercise to sternly react if any of its shells fall in southern waters."
President Park Geun-hye also ordered the military to respond "according to principle" if North Korean artillery rounds fall in South Korean territory.
The latest move comes after Pyongyang launched vitriolic rhetoric against Park following her summit talks with U.S. President Barack Obama, who visited Seoul last week as part of his Asian trip.
The two leaders warned that any provocations by North Korea, which is believed to be preparing a fourth nuclear test, would make the communist regime more isolated.
The latest satellite imagery showed heightened activities at the North's main nuclear test site in Punggye-ri, prompting Seoul and Washington to beef up their surveillance and vigilance against a possible atomic test in near future.
Still, it is not yet clear when the unpredictable regime could conduct a test, as activities detected by the satellites could be either signs for final preparations for an underground detonation or a feint aimed at drawing international attention ahead of last week's visit by Obama to South Korea.
"North Korea is ready for an atomic test," spokesman Kim said. "As the North could deceit the timing, the South Korean military has maintained a high level of vigilance."
The North's drill also comes at a time South Korea is grappling with the aftermath a ferry's sinking in the southwestern waters on April 16. The Navy has dispatched its warships, special forces and combat divers to join the search effort to the find nearly 100 people still missing, many of whom are believed to be trapped inside the submerged ship.