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South Korean Military Prepares for Largest-Ever Live-Fire Drill

South Korean marines stand guard on Yeonpyeong Island, South Korea, Dec. 17, 2010

South Korean marines stand guard on Yeonpyeong Island, South Korea, Dec. 17, 2010

South Korea's army and air force are preparing to hold their largest-ever live-fire exercise on Thursday near the inter-Korean border, as Seoul remains on high alert for any attacks by North Korea.

A South Korean officer says the drill at the Pocheon firing range, 20 kilometers south of the border, is a response to North Korea's deadly shelling of South Korea's Yeonpyeong island last month. South Korean General Ju Eun-shik says Seoul will "completely punish" the North if it retaliates militarily for the drill.

In Washington, White House spokesman Robert Gibbs says the military exercise planned by U.S. ally South Korea has been well publicized and is defensive in nature. He says there is "no way" that it should "engender a response" from North Korea.

South Korean officials say Thursday's live-fire exercise will involve jet fighters, helicopters, tanks, self-propelled K-9 guns and 800 soldiers. South Korea has staged more than 40 similar drills this year, but the scale of the upcoming exercise is unprecedented.

South Korean naval forces also began three days of exercises off the nation's east coast Wednesday, aimed in part at preventing infiltrations by North Korean submarines. The naval drill involves six warships in waters 100 kilometers south of the eastern maritime border of the two Koreas.

Seoul staged a live-fire artillery drill on Yeonpyeong on Monday, repeating an exercise that prompted North Korea to shell the island on November 23, killing four South Koreans.

Pyongyang had threatened a catastrophic response if Seoul went ahead with Monday's drill, but later backed down, saying it saw no reason to retaliate for every perceived South Korean provocation. South Korean officials say they remain concerned about the risk of a surprise attack by Pyongyang.

Some information for this report was provided by AFP.