Tuesday, 1 March 2011

South Korea begins military exercises despite North Korean warnings

Anti-war demonstrators in South Korea, 28th February

South Korea and the US have begun large-scale military exercises on Monday 28th February, despite North Korean warnings that it could trigger all-out war on the peninsula.

Every year South Korea and the US carry out training drills, and commanders insist they are purely defensive. About 12,800 US troops and 200,000 South Korean soldiers and reservists will take part.

The drills will last 11 days and will involve computer war games and live-fire exercises. The aim of the drills is to prepare South Korea for an attack by the North. It is also a rehearsal for emergency deployments of US forces in the event of a sudden attack on South Korea.

The last time South Korea and the US carried out training drills, in November 2010, North Korea reacted to live-fire exercises taking place in disputed waters by firing artillery shells at Yeonpyeong island, killing four.

The drills continued after the incident, raising tension on the divided peninsula to the highest level in years. Tension has been high since March 2010 when a South Korean warship was sunk, killing all 46 sailors on board. A Seoul-led international investigation blamed North Korea, a charge which Pyongyang denies.

Hours after the exercises started, North Korea warned of nuclear war.

"It's an anti-national scheme aimed at prolonging the stage of confrontation and tension to realise a plot to start a northward invasion," North Korea's main Rodong Sinmun newspaper said in a commentary carried by the official Korean central news agency. "The danger of a nuclear war on the Korean peninsula is deepening."

On Sunday, North Korea said that if provoked, its military would turn Seoul into a 'sea of flames' and would start a full-scale war with 'merciless' counterattacks.

South Korean officials dismissed Pyongyang's position. "Denouncing these kinds of drills as an aggression and provocation won't be a help to South-North Korea relations at all," Chun Hae-sung, a spokesman for the South Korean unification ministry, told reporters.

Not everyone in the South supports the drills, however. On Monday, about 20 anti-war activists rallied near a joint force command near Seoul, urging the South and the US to immediately halt the drills and resume talks with the North Korea.

North Korea has repeatedly pushed for talks, but when military officers from both sides met earlier this month, they failed to make any progress and a date for the next round of talks was not set.

The tension has led to conservative forces in South Korea calling for the redeployment of US tactical nuclear weapons. The White House coordinator for arms control and weapons of mass destruction, proliferation and terrorism, Gary Samore, said he believed the US would say yes if the South Korean government officially requested the redeployment.

The White House immediately countered by saying the US has no plans to bring tactical nuclear weapons back to the South, saying Washington continues to support a non-nuclear peninsula.

Another issue between the countries is Southern activists' distribution of leaflets into the North. Two and a half million leaflets were floated into the North in a balloon earlier this month. The leaflets carried messages ridiculing North Korean leader Kim Jong Il and calling for people to rise up against the government. The balloons also carried news of the Middle East uprsings. On 27th February, North Korea threatened to fire into the South if the propaganda balloon campaign was not halted.

The two countries are still technically in a state of war, as the 1950-3 Korean War has never officially finished. The land border between the two neighbours, the Demilitarised Zone, is along the 38th parallel.

The maritime border is the UN-designated Northern Limit Line, which Pyongyang believes restricts their access to marine territory. Indeed, it gives them a 3-mile territorial sea, even though the international norm is 12 miles. Since 1999, the North has been arguing in favour of a more southerly 'West Sea Military Demarcation'.

The military exercises that were carried out in November took place in this disputed area, and therefore it was unsurprising that the North reacted. It is not yet clear if this latest round of exercises will also take place in the area.

Sources: The Guardian, BBC News, Voice of America, The Korea Herald

For more information, see the Menas Borders website, here.

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