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December 15, 2010

South Korea Plans Live Firing Drill from Attacked Island

In a move likely to further escalate tension on the Korean peninsula, Seoul's military says it will resume live-firing artillery drills from an island North Korea attacked last month.

South Korea's military Thursday said artillery training will resume from Yeonpyeong island, possibly as soon as Saturday.

Spokesman Colonel Lee Boong-wu calls the exercise routine and legitimate. He says it is meant to bolster the defenses of the country's northwestern islands, which sit below the maritime border, the Northern Limit Line.

Lee says the timing of the shelling will be announced in navigation alerts beforehand. He adds that representatives of the 16-member countries of the U.N. Command and the Military Armistice Commission will observe to see that it abides by the 1953 ceasefire agreement.

North Korea does not recognize the Northern Limit Line and claims much of the Yellow Sea now under Seoul's control.

Four South Koreans died on November 23 when North Korea shelled Yeonpyeong. During an exercise that day the South Korean military had been firing artillery into the Yellow Sea, but not toward North Korea.

The United States, in response, has held military exercises with South Korea and Japan. Pyongyang calls the drills highly provocative, saying they are bringing the peninsula very close to war.

The commander of U.S. forces here, General Walter Sharp, says more exercises will be conducted. He says they will partly focus on how to respond to provocations by North Korea.

"In light of the recent events we will seek ways to further change our exercises to address limited as well as full-scale North Korean attacks," said Sharp.

The shelling of Yeonpyeong came eight months after the sinking of a South Korean navy ship, which killed 46 sailors. An international investigation concluded the vessel was hit by a North Korean torpedo. Pyongyang denies involvement.

In 1953, fighting halted in the three-year Korean War, but since no peace treaty has been signed, the two Koreas remain technically at war.

South Korea's government Thursday expressed skepticism about reports that North Korea may allow United Nations inspectors to return to examine Pyongyang's nuclear facilities. The inspectors were kicked out of the country in 2008.

South Korean media report that North Korean leader Kim Jong Il made the offer to visiting Chinese officials last week.

Foreign Ministry spokesman Kim Young-sun says it appears, however, Pyongyang did not explicitly say it would accept inspectors from the International Atomic Energy Agency.

Kim says based on Seoul's past dealings with Pyongyang, it is important for the North Koreans to demonstrate the will to end their nuclear weapons programs by taking specific actions.

Despite years of negotiations that began in 2003, North Korea has not made good on promises to end its nuclear weapons programs in return for aid and greater diplomatic recognition.

Also, the governor of the U.S. state of New Mexico, Bill Richardson, began a four-day visit to Pyongyang.

The U.S. State Department says Richardson, who has made several trips to North Korea, is not carrying any official message. But his visit is seen as part of the intensive diplomacy in Asia to defuse tensions on the Korean peninsula.

Before departing Beijing for Pyongyang, Richardson said he hopes to bring about peace by persuading North Korea's leadership to stop some of the aggressive actions it has taken.