Ahn Young-joon, Pool, Associated Press
SEOUL, South Korea — North Korea warned South Korea not to hold live artillery drills on a front-line island the North shelled last month, saying it would hit back even harder than in the previous attack that killed four South Koreans.
The North had also warned the South against holding drills before it responded by launching artillery shells Nov. 23 that destroyed homes and renewed fears of war.
South Korea has said it plans one-day, live-fire drills sometime between Saturday and Tuesday on Yeonpyeong, a tiny island home to fishing communities and military bases that sits just seven miles (11 kilometers) from North Korean shores. Seoul says the timing will depend on weather and other factors and the drills will be held despite the North's threats.
The North does not recognize the U.N.-drawn sea border in the area and says it considers such drills an infringement of its territory.
Last month's assault was the first by the North to target a civilian area since the end of the 1950-53 Korean War, and it has caused anger and shock in the South, where TV screens and newspapers were filled with stunning images of islanders fleeing their bombed-out, burning homes.
A senior North Korean military official said in comments carried by the North's official Korean Central News Agency that if South Korea goes ahead with more drills on Yeonpyeong, "unpredictable self-defensive strikes will be made."
"The intensity and scope of the strike will be more serious than the Nov. 23 (shelling)," the North said in the notice that was sent to South Korean military officials Friday.
The North said the planned drills are an attempt "to save the face of the South Korean military, which met a disgraceful fiasco" during last month's clash.
South Korean President Lee Myung-bak's government has faced stinging criticism that his military was unprepared for the attack and reacted too slowly and too weakly. He has since replaced his defense minister and vowed to boost troops and weapons on islands along the Koreas' disputed western sea border.
Seoul has said the drills are part of "routine, justified" exercises and it is prepared to deal with any North Korean attack. Representatives of the American-led U.N. Command that oversees the armistice that ended the Korean War will observe the drills.
The tough words from the Koreas came as New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson visited the North.
A frequent unofficial envoy to the reclusive country, Richardson said he wanted to visit the North's main nuclear complex and meet with senior officials during his four-day trip, though details of his schedule were unclear.
"My objective is to see if we can reduce the tension in the Korean peninsula," Richardson said at the airport in Pyongyang, according to Associated Press Television News.
In Washington, State Department spokesman P.J. Crowley said Friday that South Korea has a right to conduct a live-fire military exercise and North Korea should not view that as a threat.
"A country has every right to train and exercise its military in its own self-defense," Crowley said. "North Korea should not use any future legitimate training exercises as justification to undertake further provocative actions."
Still, Gen. James Cartwright, vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, voiced worry of a potential chain reaction if the drill is misunderstood or if North Korea reacts negatively.
"What you don't want to have happen out of that is for us to lose control of the escalation," he told reporters at the Pentagon. "That's the concern."
Amid the rising tensions, American diplomats were holding meetings in the region.
In Beijing, U.S. Deputy Secretary of State James Steinberg held closed-door meetings with Chinese State Councilor Dai Bingguo. Beijing's top foreign policy official returned last week from talks in Pyongyang with North Korean leader Kim Jong Il. China has come under growing pressure to push ally North Korea to change its behavior.
Dai said it was urgent that all parties prevent escalating tensions, according to China's official Xinhua News Agency.
The U.S. special envoy for six-party talks, Sung Kim, met Friday for talks with South Korean nuclear envoy Wi Sung-lac. Kim did not talk to reporters after the meeting.
Pyongyang is believed to be seeking one-on-one talks with the United States before returning to six-nation nuclear disarmament negotiations hosted by China. Those talks also include South Korea, Japan, and Russia.
Crowley said that before any discussions can happen, North Korea must cease provocations, reduce tensions in the region, improve ties with South Korea and take steps to abandon its nuclear programs.
In New York, U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon called the Nov. 23 attack on the tiny island of Yeonpyeong "one of the gravest provocations since the end of Korean war."
Ban, a former South Korean foreign minister, urged North Korea to show restraint and called on both Koreas to reduce tensions on the Korean peninsula.
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