South Korea to hold live fire drill despite North warning

SEOUL (AFP) - South Korea said it would carry out a live fire exercise Tuesday near the disputed sea border with North Korea, despite Pyongyang's warning of "grave consequences" if it went ahead.

Defence Ministry spokesman Kim Min-Seok told reporters that the North had sent a faxed message on Monday, demanding the exercise involving artillery batteries on Baengnyeong and Yeonpyeong islands in the Yellow Sea be called off.

The message from the North's top military body, the National Defence Commission (NDC), threatened unspecified "grave consequences" if the drill went ahead, Mr Kim said.

The South responded that the exercise was a "legitimate military drill" that would be carried out as scheduled, and warned of "strong retaliatory strikes" to any provocation from North Korea.

The drill comes as the two Koreas are seeking to negotiate the resumption of family reunions for people separated by the 1950-53 Korean War.

"The drill and family reunions are completely different issues... and we stressed that the North should not attempt to link these two issues," Mr Kim said.

The reunion programme was suspended after the North shelled Yeonpyeong island in November 2010.

South Korea has offered a guarded response to a series of apparently conciliatory gestures made by North Korea in recent weeks, including calls to end all military hostilities and to halt cross-border verbal mud-slinging.

Seoul officials believe the North is seeking to take the moral high ground before triggering a possible confrontation over annual South Korea-US military drills that begin at the end of February.

Pyongyang, which views the drills as a provocative rehearsal for invasion, has demanded they be cancelled in order to avoid a repeat of the surge in military tensions that accompanied last year's exercises.

South Korea insists the joint drills will go ahead, although there have been unconfirmed reports that Seoul and Washington may be considering scaling down their size - with no aircraft carrier or strategic bombers.

South Korea hosts 28,500 US soldiers and the United States would assume overall operational command of joint US and South Korean forces if a full-scale conflict with the North broke out.

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