S Korea defies North, holds naval exercise


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SEOUL - In a major show of force, South Korean warships fired guns and dropped anti-submarine bombs during a large-scale military exercise yesterday, despite warnings by North Korea that the drill would bring the peninsula to the brink of war.

The exercise was the first since Seoul publicly accused Pyongyang of torpedoing one of its warships on March 26, killing 46 sailors.

North Korean reaction was swift - it declared it would scrap an accord with the South designed to prevent armed clashes at their maritime border, and warned of "immediate physical strikes" if any South Korean ship enters its waters.

It said it was also scrapping military safety guarantees for South Koreans crossing the land border and would consider a complete block on access to a joint industrial estate in its territory.

South Korea held its anti-submarine exercise in the Yellow Sea yesterday with 10 warships, including a 3,500-tonne destroyer.

And General Walter Sharp - chief of the 28,500 American troops in South Korea - warned that the United States, South Korea and other members of the United Nations Command "will sustain our efforts to deter and defeat aggression".

"We call on North Korea to cease all acts of provocation and to live up with the terms of past agreements, including the armistice agreement," he said.

According to South Korean media, the US-South Korean combined forces command has raised its surveillance level from 3 to 2. Level 1 is the highest.

The increased alert level means US spy satellites and U2 spy planes will intensify their reconnaissance of North Korea, the JoongAng Ilbo newspaper said.

The South Korean and US militaries would not confirm any changes to the alert level.

It would be the first change since North Korea carried out a nuclear test in May 2009, a South Korean Joint Chiefs of Staff officer said on condition of anonymity.

Despite the tensions, most analysts feel the prospect of a major war remains remote because North Korea knows what's at stake.

"I don't think they're really interested in going to war," said Mr Daniel Pinkston, a Seoul-based analyst for the International Crisis Group think tank.

"Because if it's all-out war, then I'm convinced it would mean the absolute destruction" of North Korea, he said.

Mr Yang Moo Jin of Seoul's University of North Korean Studies said the two Koreas appear to have "neither the will nor a strategy to exit from this extremely difficult phase" and only the US and China could end the crisis.

South Korea and the US have launched a diplomatic drive to punish the North with UN Security Council sanctions.

China, which wields veto power in the council, has so far held back from condemning the North.

While Russia, which also has veto power, said it would send experts to Seoul to study the findings of the investigation into the sinking. Moscow said it would not support efforts to punish the North until it is fully convinced of its guilt.