New ROK drills add to tension on peninsula

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The announcement by the Republic of Korea (ROK) of naval drills, starting on Monday, has again escalated tension on the Korean Peninsula.

The ROK military plans to stage live-fire drills at 23 locations off its coast from Dec 27 to Dec 31, the ROK Joint Chiefs of Staff said on Sunday.

The exercise will not be held near the tense maritime border with the Democratic People's Republic of Korea (DPRK) on the Yellow Sea, according to coordinates given by the government.

The JoongAng Daily, in the ROK, reported last week that the US decided to send another nuclear-powered aircraft carrier, the USS Ronald Reagan, to East Asia.

If true, this will be the third US aircraft carrier deployed in the area, in addition to the USS George Washington, which earlier took part in Washington's joint military drills with Seoul and Tokyo, and the USS Carl Vinson, which just arrived at Guam in the western Pacific.

Analysts accused the US of increasing the danger of war in the region even though the DPRK has shown restraint amid a number of recent ROK drills.

"Three aircraft carriers in the same region are going to be interpreted as a signal of preparing for war," Major General Luo Yuan, with the PLA Academy of Military Sciences, told China Daily.

Luo also said that the US deployment is a "demonstration to not only the DPRK, but also to the forces of peace", especially China and Russia that have been trying to promote dialogue.

Luo said that judging by the current situation, there is a dangerous possibility that Washington is prodding Seoul to continually irritate Pyongyang until Pyongyang radically reacts.

"Then the US can perform a surgical strike on the DPRK," Luo said.

Pyongyang said Washington and Seoul are "inviting a nuclear war" by conducting military drills, as a Seoul-based think tank predicted that the DPRK may hold another atomic test next year.

A commentary on the DPRK's official Rodong newspaper said on Saturday that the ROK's Dec 20 artillery drill on Yeonpyeong Island, near the disputed sea border, was an intentional provocation, and the DPRK is closely watching "the reckless behavior of the warmongers inviting a nuclear war".

The comments followed Pyongyang's threat on Thursday that it was ready for a "sacred war" using its nuclear weapons, as Seoul held its second live-fire drill in a week.

The ROK's state-run Institute of Foreign Affairs and National Security said in a report posted on its website on Friday that the DPRK may conduct a third nuclear test next year as it needs to refine its plutonium bomb.

Tensions have been high on the Korean Peninsula since the Nov 23 exchange of artillery fire which saw the DPRK shell Yeonpyeong Island.

The DPRK said it fired after ROK shells landed in its waters, while the ROK has said its routine firing drill was aimed away from the sea border and should not have provoked an attack.

On Friday, DPRK soldiers, proud of participating in the artillery barrage, appeared on a state TV program marking the 19th anniversary of leader Kim Jong-il's appointment as the DPRK's supreme military commander.

"Our eyes were full of fire right after we saw the enemy's shells being fired into our sacred waters," soldier Kim Moon-chol said, clenching his fists and standing shoulder-to-shoulder with three uniformed colleagues.

Pyongyang and Seoul have ramped up their verbal attacks as Seoul continues its hard-line stance, a stance analysts said was largely due to domestic pressure following the government's perceived earlier weakness to DPRK attacks.

Luo said that there is no reason for the ROK to start war, as its anger should have been sated through the recent military drills.

A report released on Thursday by the Brussels-based International Crisis Group warned that "any further provocation might turn into a wider conflict".

While the DPRK would lose an all-out war against the ROK and the US, "Seoul is constrained in retaliating forcefully because it has so much to lose" economically and politically, the report said.

Da Wei, a scholar with the China Institutes of Contemporary International Relations, said the US deployment is not purely because of military needs, but more of a gesture to showcase its military muscle.

An article in the Washington-based bimonthly foreign-policy journal, The National Interest, last week suggested that the US, instead of "simply raising the decibel level", establishes with China ways of diffusing the situation and works out how best to move ahead on denuclearization regardless of the difficulty that this may present.

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