BEIJING — Just two days after staging artillery drills that some feared would bring North Korean retaliation and possibly spark war, South Korea announced Wednesday a massive series of military exercises by sea and land to begin Thursday.
The latest announcement underlined the precarious security situation on the Korean Peninsula, which is at its most strained in many years, but there were conflicting accounts of the size and nature of the exercise.
A spokesman for the South Korean Defense Ministry said the exercises are the biggest this year and "are not related to North Korean provocations."
"It's an annual army and air force drill," spokesman Kwon Ki-hyeon told McClatchy by telephone. He said the event will take place at a firing range.
By contrast, South Korea's Yonhap news service called the war games the "largest-ever ground and air live-fire drill near the border with North Korea." Yonhap also said the exercises — to include artillery, multiple-launch rocket systems, anti-aircraft guns, F-15 fighter jets and attack helicopters — were meant to deter North Korean "provocations."
The White House defended the exercises as defensive in nature. "I think exercises that have been announced well in advance, that are transparent, that are defensive in nature should in no way engender a response from the North Koreans," spokesman Robert Gibbs told reporters Wednesday.
Whatever the motivation for the war games, they're likely to exacerbate tensions on the peninsula, where North and South have been trading threats to unleash crushing military strikes if the other side acts in a manner that can be perceived as an attack.
In addition to the live-fire maneuvers on Thursday, Seoul began three days of naval exercises Wednesday in the Sea of Japan with warships and anti-submarine helicopters roughly 60 miles south of its maritime border with North Korea.
The standoff hit a crisis point Monday when the South fired artillery rounds for about 90 minutes during exercises on an island that the North had shelled a few weeks before.
Pyongyang, in an unexpected shift, didn't follow through on threats to respond militarily and instead offered to allow United Nations nuclear inspectors into the country and sell 12,000 plutonium fuel rods to South Korea.
Seoul has so far been wary of both offers and reluctant to return to multi-lateral negotiations with the North. Both the U.S. and Japan also have voiced reservations about rejoining the Chinese-backed six-party talks.
After the North reportedly torpedoed a South Korean submarine in March, killing 46 sailors, and then pounded Yeonpyeong Island with artillery last month, killing two civilians and two marines, public opinion in Seoul has turned sharply against accommodation.
"South Korea has been very soft-hearted, we believed that they wouldn't attack us," said Park Young-suk, a 63-year-old housewife interviewed recently in the capital. "I don't believe in them (North Koreans) as a people anymore."
For many ordinary South Koreans and for the government, there's deep concern that past decades of negotiating with the North and sending billions of dollars in aid has allowed their neighbor to further develop its weapons stockpiles.
Complicating the issue is that little is known about the internal workings of Kim Jong Il's totalitarian regime in Pyongyang. Experienced observers often qualify their analysis with the caveat that they could be completely wrong.
One reason often mentioned for the North's aggressive moves this year is that Kim Jong Il is worried that his heir apparent, a son in his late-20s, might not have the support of the nation's military commanders in the event of Kim's demise. There's also speculation that Pyongyang is trying to push Seoul and Washington, which has some 28,500 troops stationed in the South, toward a new round of talks and presumably more aid being sent to the impoverished North.
In China, the only country in the region with influence over North Korea, analysts warned Wednesday that continued South Korean military drills could result in Pyongyang lashing out. China itself, though, has been criticized for not publicly condemning the North's attacks this year.
"We expected that North Korea would have a very strong reaction on Monday, but they didn't," said Shi Yuanhua, director of a Korean studies center at Fudan University in Shanghai. But if South Korea keeps pushing, North Korea will respond."
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