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Tensions have been high since the North shelled the South Korean island of Yeonpyeong on Tuesday, taking relations between the two Koreas to one of its lowest points since the Korean War. And ahead of the US-South Korean drills scheduled to begin on Sunday, the North continued to rattle its saber, saying it was “ready to annihilate the South’s stronghold” if it violated the North’s sovereignty. North Korea also conducted artillery test fires audible on Yeonpyeong.
The rounds fired on Friday were the first heard since the attack earlier this week, and South Korea’s Ministry of Defense spokesman, Kwon Ki-hyeon, told The New York Times that all of the rounds fired appeared to stay within North Korea and were thus likely part of a drill or a show of force designed to keep South Korean forces on edge.
South Korea appears to be preparing for the possibility of more acts of aggression, with government officials announcing that they would change their rules of engagement. Previously, those had been designed to stop a conflict from escalating, but they are being altered to make it easier for South Korean forces to respond to any further “provocations,” reports The Chosunilbo.
“This type of provocation [by North Korea] can happen again at any time. We must strengthen our alert, especially in the West Sea area,” the article quoted President Lee Myung-bak as stating. “Vulnerable areas like the five West Sea islands must be thoroughly prepared with the latest equipment to counter localized provocations and asymmetric warfare threats.”
Although many South Koreans doubt that the recent attack will lead to a larger conflict, there has been mounting criticism that Seoul’s response was not strong enough. On Thursday, the country’s Defense minister resigned, and was replaced by a former chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Gen. Kim Kwan-jin.
Hundreds of South Koreans also demonstrated in the border town of Paju, saying that their government was “being too weak,” reports the Guardian. President Lee had vowed a strong response to any attack after an investigation found that the North was responsible for the sinking of the South Korean Navy vessel the Cheonan in March.
The United States has reemphasized its commitment to South Korea's defense following the artillery attack. Gen. Walter Sharp, the top commander of US forces in Korea, toured artillery-damaged areas on Yeonpyeong just hours before the North conducted its apparent training fire exercise.
“We and the United Nations command will investigate this completely and will call on North Korea to stop any future attacks,” he said in an article by the Australian Broadcasting Corp., adding that the North had openly violated the armistice agreement signed at the conclusion of the Korean War in 1953.
Although the coming joint military exercises will take place far from the disputed Yellow Sea border, The Korea Herald reports that the North may use them as cause for another act of aggression. The exercises were planned before the attacks happened.
“We cannot rule out the possibility of more attacks and provocations from the North given its recent belligerent behavior. The time between North Korean provocations seems to be shrinking significantly with each new incident,” said Victor Cha, a security expert at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, D.C., in The Korea Herald. “This could reflect growing instability in the North, the succession process, or a combination of both.”