By Lee Tae-hoon
South Korea’s Army and Air Force will hold their largest-ever joint live-fire exercise today at a range, some 20 kilometers south of the border with North Korea, a military official said Wednesday.
“The joint exercise has been annually carried out in the town of Pocheon, Gyeonggi Province,” Eom Hyo-sik, an Army spokesman, said. “This year, however, it will be staged on a larger scale than before.”
The official said the joint drill will mobilize some 800 troops and 105 modern weapons, including K1 tanks, K9 self-propelled howitzers, multi-rocket launchers, twin 30mm self-propelled anti-aircraft vehicles, AH-1S Cobra attack helicopters, as well as F-15K and KF-16 fighter jets.
Separately, the Navy said it began a four-day firing drill off the east coast, some 100 kilometers south of the maritime border with the North, to beef up the country’s preparedness for possible intrusions by submarines and patrol boats.
It has mobilized six warships and anti-submarine helicopters, a Navy official said.
The latest drills will be staged amid heightened tension on the Korean Peninsula, following the North’s sinking of a South Korean warship on March 26 and surprise artillery attack on Yeonpyeong Island off the west coast on Nov 23.
The North’s torpedoing of the frigate Cheonan killed 46 sailors aboard and the bombardment of Yeonpyeong killed four people, including two civilians.
Seoul has also decided to deploy Israeli-made Spike missiles on Yeonpyeong capable of precision strikes as early as possible to deter additional North Korean provocations, a military official said, asking for anonymity.
Equipped with an infrared imaging seeker and with a range of 25 kilometers, the guided missiles can locate and hit enemy targets hidden in bunkers along the North’s west coast near the maritime border.
Tension reached a new high Monday when Seoul conducted a live-fire artillery exercise on Yeonpyeong Island near the maritime border in the West Sea, despite the North’s repeated threat of “deadly retaliation.”
The military plans to remain on full alert and maintain readiness to immediately strike back at the North in the case of a possible attack until the risk of Pyongyang’s provocations is substantially reduced.
On Tuesday, Defense Minister Kim Kwan-jin told lawmakers that Pyongyang will likely carry out another surprise attack against Seoul when the latter “lets its guard down.”
Kim, however, underlined that the North would not dare to start a full-scale war as “the odds are against it.”
The North has reportedly put fighter jets on standby and deployed additional surface-to-surface and surface-to-air missiles along its west coast.
The two Koreas are still technically at war after the 1950-53 Korean War ended in a truce, not a peace treaty.