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South Korean Live-Fire Drill Ends Without Incident


A South Korean navy vessel patrols near Yeonpyeong Island (file photo)
Tensions on the Korean peninsula, which have been building for months, reached a peak today when the South carried out a live-fire artillery exercise under threat of Northern retaliation.

In the event, the North Korean guns across the nearby border remained silent during the 90-minute exercise, giving hope that the current round of brinksmanship between the two Koreas might be on the ebb.

The North Korean People's Army Supreme Command said the barrage was "not worth" a military response.

The government in Seoul went through with the exercise on the west coast island of Yeonpyeong to demonstrate its determination to defend its territory. The same island was heavily shelled by Northern artillery last month, with the loss of life of four South Koreans.

"The Yeonpyeong Island firing exercise is regular and justified, for defense of our waters and territory," Foreign Ministry spokesman Kim Young-sun told a news conference in Seoul earlier in the day. "Therefore, this is a matter of our sovereignty."

After months of beating the drum of war, CNN reported that the North chose this moment to offer a concession on its nuclear program -- namely to allow UN inspectors to return to its Yongbyon nuclear site, and to sell thousands of fuel rods from its plutonium-based program.

But nuclear experts warn this could be a gesture of little real value, in that Pyongyang recently revealed that it has an active uranium-enrichment program. When highly enriched, uranium is suitable for nuclear-bomb making. This might therefore be merely a switch from an aging plutonium technology to a newer one, without any reduction in the North's potential nuclear bomb threat.

Meanwhile, at the United Nations, the Security Council has failed to agree a statement addressing the tensions on the Korean Peninsula.

The Security Council met for eight hours on December 19 but could not overcome differences of view among is members. The United States and other Security Council members had asked the council to condemn North Korea for two deadly attacks on South Korea.

But diplomats said North Korea's main ally China, as well as Russia, had expressed reservations about a statement that would hold only the North responsible.

China did, however, issue a separate call for talks between the two Koreas to defuse tensions. Vice Foreign Minister Cui Tiankai said in Beijing that nobody "has the right to incite or provoke conflict or war, and nobody has the right to make the people on both sides of the Korean peninsula shed their blood," Cui said only dialogue and negotiations can resolve disputes, not war.

Speaking from Moscow, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said he's "not optimistic" about the situation, and he called on both Koreas to exercise restraint.

written by Breffni O'Rourke based on agency reports