South Korea on Thursday launched its largest-ever anti-submarine exercise including live-fire training near the disputed sea border with North Korea, despite Pyongyang's threats of retaliation.
The South has warned the North it will not tolerate provocations during the five-day naval drill in the Yellow Sea, being staged in response to what it says was a deadly North Korean torpedo attack on a warship.
|South Korean Marines on patrol on Baengnyeong island near the border with North Korea in March 2010.|
"This is the largest anti-submarine exercise in our military history, involving the army, navy, air force and marines," a Joint Chiefs of Staff (JCS) spokesman told AFP.
South Korea is mobilising 4,500 troops, backed by top-of-the-line war machines including 29 ships such as submarines and destroyers and 50 aircraft including jet fighters and attack helicopters.
The exercise comes eight days after South Korea and the United States ended a massive joint naval and air drill in the Sea of Japan (East Sea) as a show of force against the North.
Pyongyang has angrily denied responsibility for the March sinking of the corvette the Cheonan, which claimed the lives of 46 sailors and sharply raised tensions on the Korean peninsula.
The JCS said the latest exercise is "defensive" in nature, focused on repelling attacks by sea, including those by the North's feared commandoes riding hovercrafts.
Marines stationed on islands near the disputed Yellow Sea border with the North would stage live-fire battery exercises but the guns will be trained southwest.
"We don't fire toward the sea border, even if the North does sometimes in provocative acts," the JCS spokesman said.
Anti-submarine training involving torpedo and depth charge firing will also take place in the Yellow Sea but far south of the border, he added.
"Except for the batteries on the islands, you won't hear much of the sound of live fire in the sea near the border," he said.
This week's exercise is one of a raft of drills planned by the South separately or jointly with its ally the United States in the aftermath of the sinking of the Cheonan.
A multinational investigation concluded that the warship had been torpedoed by one of the North's submarines near the border in the Yellow Sea, the scene of several naval clashes in the past.
Pyongyang vehemently denies involvement but Washington slapped it with new sanctions to punish it for the alleged attack and to push it to scrap its nuclear weapons programme.
The North's military Tuesday blasted this week's exercise as a "direct military invasion" and warned "reckless naval firing" by the South would be countered "with strong physical retaliation."
"Raising issue with the legitimate, defensive exercise is a provocation in itself," said Rear Admiral Kim Kyung-Sik of South Korea's JCS said Wednesday. "Our armed forces will closely monitor enemy movements during these drills."
The sinking of the Cheonan deepened an emerging Cold-War style confrontation between China and North Korea on one side and the United States and South Korea on the other.
China last week staged a large naval and air exercise on its southeast coast -- just as South Korea and the United States conducted their own naval drill -- and on Tuesday launched large-scale air defence manoeuvres.
China is North Korea's closest ally and trade partner and has refused to join in international condemnation of Pyongyang over the warship sinking.
Beijing had expressed concern about the US-South Korea exercise, which was initially supposed to be held in the Yellow Sea separating China and the Korean peninsula but was relocated to the Sea of Japan after Beijing's protests.
China has warned against further actions it says could raise tensions in the region.