News / Asia

North Korea Seen Conducting Large-Scale Military Drill Soon

North Korean soldiers look towards the south as a South Korean soldier (R) stands guard in the demilitarized zone separating the two Koreas, July 15, 2011.
North Korean soldiers look towards the south as a South Korean soldier (R) stands guard in the demilitarized zone separating the two Koreas, July 15, 2011.

Reports from South Korea indicate a large-scale military exercise by North Korea appears to be imminent.

South Korean government sources say, based on information from intelligence teams, North Korea appears poised for a rare, large-scale military drill.

Government officials, who do not want to be named, say they are “observing closely” North Korean positions. But they say there are no indications the massing of military personnel appears to be anything more than a drill.

The chairman of the U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff, Navy Admiral Michael Mullen, addressing reporters in Washington on Monday, did not make mention of the apparent preparations in North Korea for a military exercise.  But the admiral did express concern that Pyongyang’s military will conduct some sort of action against the South again, at some point.

"It is my view that the North Korean regime will once again attempt to provoke hostilities and that once again leaders in the South will face some difficult decisions about if and how to respond," Mullen said. "Thus far, ROK [South Korea] leaders have shown commendable restraint. But I think it would be a grave mistake for the North to perceive this restraint as a lack of resolve or, in fact, of the capability of our alliance to defend itself," Mullen cautioned.

The North prefers to carry out military exercises this time of year, but maneuvers simultaneously involving the army ground force, the navy and air force are unusual.

South Korean media, quoting government sources here, say a significant number of North Korean troops, MiG-21 fighter jets and about 20 naval vessels have assembled, since last week, at two bases in the Yellow Sea.

Sources speaking to VOA say the North Korean maneuvers could begin as soon as Wednesday, with a simulated coastal landing of troops

Analysts say South Korean and U.S. military intelligence units are closely monitoring activities at the Onchon air base and Nampo naval facility to the southwest of Pyongyang, the North Korean capital.

U.S. Forces Korea, in an e-mailed response to VOA, said it cannot comment on intelligence matters and does not “feel it appropriate to speculate on press reports.”

Monday, North Korea’s official news agency reported that leader Kim Jong-il and his son and heir apparent Kim Jong-un had visited the Navy command in Pyongyang.

North Korea is blamed for the sinking of a South Korean warship in the Yellow Sea in 2010.  It also launched an artillery attack on a South Korean island in the same waters last year.

North Korea has repeatedly denied that its torpedo sank the Cheonan warship. As for the shelling of Yeonpyeong island, Pyongyang called it a response to South Korea’s military firing into disputed waters.

Last month, South Korea inaugurated a new defense command to protect Yeonpyeong and four other frontline islands. At the time, President Lee Myung-bak said South Korea would retaliate “strongly and thoroughly” if the North attacked again.

The western sea has long been a flashpoint for the two Koreas.

In recent days, North Korea has been warning of military retaliation if South Korea and the United States go ahead next month with an annual exercise.  North Korean media are terming the joint maneuver an open military threat and preparation for a nuclear attack on the country.

U.S. and South Korean military officials term the annual Ulchi Freedom Guardian exercise a routine defensive training “to enhance the combat readiness” of their alliance.

The new commander of the Combined Forces Command, U.S. Army General James Thurman, says the exercise will include “tough and realistic training events focused on preparing, preventing and prevailing against the full range of current and future threats to the Republic of Korea and the region."

The ten-day drill, beginning in mid-August, will see the mobilization of tens of thousands of South Korean and American military personnel.

The military training on both sides of the demilitarized zone comes amid positive diplomatic moves.

For the first time in two-and-a-half years government officials of the two Koreas have held their first non-secret meeting.

That took place last Friday on the sidelines of the ASEAN regional forum on an Indonesian resort island.  Immediately after that surprise meeting, the United States invited a top-ranking North Korean diplomat to New York.  He is to meet with U.S. diplomats there, later this week.

The two Koreas have never signed a peace treaty since their three-year civil war in the early 1950’s, which they fought to a stalemate.

Wednesday marks the 58th anniversary of the signing of the armistice which halted hostile action.  North Korea celebrates it as “War Victory Day.”

At the truce village, Panmunjom, the day is to be commemorated at a short ceremony attended by the military and civilian leadership of the U.S.-led United Nations Command, South Korean officials and the Neutral Nations Supervisory Commission.

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