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South Korean Military Starts Live-Fire Drills

South Korean Marines patrol on the Yeonpyeong Island, South Korea, Monday, 06 Dec 2010
South Korean Marines patrol on the Yeonpyeong Island, South Korea, Monday, 06 Dec 2010

South Korea has begun a fresh series of live-fire artillery exercises across the country. They are seen as a response to North Korea's shelling of a South Korean island, nearly two weeks ago.

As South Korea began a week of artillery drills across the country, the new defense minister ordered the military to exercise its right of self defense, should another attack be launched by North Korea.

Former Army general Kim Kwan-jin, who took office two days ago, told reporters Monday South Korea's military forces can immediately retaliate, if North Korea provokes first.

Park Syungje, at the Asia Strategy Institute, says the defense minister's statement is meant to make a distinction from the more cautious rules of engagement.

Park says the right-of-self-defense comment should deter North Korea from making additional attacks. He adds that South Korea is not expected to fire too closely to the disputed maritime boundary, known as the Northern Limit Line, during the current drills.

South Korean defense officials, contacted for interviews, would not comment on the precise locations where artillery will be fired into the troubled western waters.

It was in that area, during an artillery exercise by the South on November 23, that North Korea fired shells onto Yeonpyeong island.

On Monday, in Washington, the foreign ministers and other senior diplomats from South Korea and Japan are to meet with U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton. Officials here say the three countries will discuss the North Korean artillery attack and Pyongyang's nuclear programs, including its recently revealed uranium reprocessing operation.

After the November 23 attack on Yeonpyeong, South Korea's government and military faced domestic criticism for their slow and restrained response. The military did fire back artillery but aircraft were not sent to destroy the guns in North Korea which fired on the island.

Most of the 1,500 people living on the island fled to the mainland after the attack.

Monday, South Korea's prime minister vowed the government will do all it can to return life to normal on the battered island. Kim Hwang-Sik has announced $25 million in aid will be dispensed to displaced residents to help them rebuild destroyed homes. He also noted more troops and weaponry are being sent to Yeonpyeong and four other islands on the frontline.

The prime minister says that will allow South Korea to respond firmly to any further military provocation from the North.

Pyongyang has repeatedly taken aggressive action in waters near the Northern Limit Line, which it stresses it does not recognize as the sea border.

In its Sunday evening news broadcast, North Korean television warned the fresh South Korean artillery drills would bring the peninsula even closer to a state of war.

The announcer says such provocative madness is creating an uncontrollable, extreme and unpredictable situation. But she says North Korea, is, remaining cool-headed and in control.

The Yonhap news agency reports a South Korean presidential security panel has recommended that, in wake of the shelling of Yeonpyeong, the number of marines be doubled. The South Korean marines are a key force for the defense of the country's western border islands. The policy suggestions, according to the news service, include halting the reduction of how long those conscripted into the military are required to serve. In South Korea, a period of military service is compulsory for all physically fit men to complete between the ages of 19 and 30.