PYONGYANG, North Korea — North Korea will launch "merciless" strikes if South Korea goes through with planned live-fire drills Monday in a disputed front-line area near their disputed sea border, a North Korean officer warned in an interview with The Associated Press.
North Korea doesn't want a war but its people are always ready to "dedicate their blood to defend their inviolable territory," officer Sin Chol Ung from the North"s Korean People's Security Forces told AP on Sunday as South Korean troops prepared to hold the drills in an area that was the target of a deadly artillery attack in 2010.
South Korea is scheduled to stage regular one-day artillery drills Monday from front-line islands in waters off the western coast that North Korea claims as its territory. South Korea informed Pyongyang of the training plan on Sunday, South Korea's Joint Chiefs of Staff said in Seoul.
Soon after, Pyongyang's military called the drills a "premeditated military provocation" and warned the South it would retaliate for an attack on its territory. North Korea urged civilians living or working on the islands to evacuate before the drills begin, the western military command said in a statement carried by the North's official Korean Central News Agency.
The threat of an artillery attack like the one that killed four South Koreans in November 2010 after a similar exchange between the two Koreas comes two months after the death of leader Kim Jong Il and as his son Kim Jong Un takes the helm of the nation of 24 million.
Early Monday, the powerful Political Bureau of the Central Committee of North Korea's ruling Workers' Party announced it would convene a special political conference in mid-April to "glorify" the late leader and to rally around his son.
The last time such a conference was held was in September 2010, when Kim Jong Un was named to a high-ranking party military post in the first public confirmation that he was being groomed to succeed his father.
Kim Jong Un has been declared "supreme leader" of North Korea's people, party and military, but was expected to gain new top titles and positions as part of the process to solidify his role as the third-generation Kim to lead North Korea. His grandfather, Kim Il Sung, remains "eternal president," while Kim Jong Il ruled as chairman of the National Defense Commission.
The tension on the Korean peninsula, which has remained in a technical state of war since the three-year Korean War ended in a truce in 1953, comes as North Korea prepares to celebrate a major milestone in its history: the 100th anniversary of the birth of late President Kim Il Sung, the nation's founder.
"We are now facing honorable tasks to build a thriving socialist nation by firmly defending the revolutionary ideas and line and undying revolutionary feats of the President and Kim Jong Il and successfully materializing them without an inch of deflection under the leadership of Kim Jong Un," the Politburo said in a statement obtained by AP.
Kim Jong Il died of a heart attack Dec. 17 at age 69. South Korea has barred all but two private delegations from visiting Pyongyang to pay their respects to Kim — a decision that infuriated North Korea's leadership.
South Korea's military is ready to repel any North Korean provocation, an official from the Joint Chiefs of Staff said in Seoul, speaking on condition of anonymity in line with department rules.
In Pyongyang, Sin told AP: "We are monitoring every movement by the South Korean warmongers. If they provoke us, there will be only merciless retaliatory strikes."
South Korea also plans joint anti-submarine drills with the United States this week, but the training site is further south, the South Korean military official said. About 28,500 U.S. troops are stationed in South Korea as what U.S. and South Korean officials call deterrence against North Korean aggression.
"The Lee Myung-bak group of traitors should not forget the lesson taught by the Yeonpyeong Island shelling case," the North's statement said, referring to the South Korean president.
The North's warning also came four days before U.S. and North Korean officials are to meet in Beijing for talks on the country's nuclear weapons program. The discussions will be the first such bilateral contact since Kim's Dec. 17 death.
Associated Press writer Hyung-jin Kim contributed to this report from Seoul, South Korea.