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SEOUL, Dec. 20 (KATAKAMI / Yonhap) — President Lee Myung-bak said Monday that the South Korean military’s artillery drills from the western border island of Yeonpyeong were an appropriate move aimed at protecting the country’s territory and that no other country can take issue with them, according to Lee’s office.
“It is natural for a sovereign country to conduct a military exercise for territorial defense,” especially as it is a divided nation with military confrontation, Lee was quoted as saying. “Nobody can meddle in it.”
The president made the remarks while receiving briefings on the 90-minute live-ammunition training near the tense Yellow Sea border, said Hong Sang-pyo, senior secretary for public affairs at Lee’s office Cheong Wa Dae.
Lee also ordered the government to stay on full alert against possible provocations by the North when he visited the crisis management center at the underground bunker of Cheong Wa Dae, Hong said.
The South’s military pressed ahead with the artillery firing as scheduled despite the North’s threats of a military response and formal requests from China and Russia for the cancellation of the training plan. There was no immediate report of unusual activity by the North following the end of the drills.
Monday’s firing had political implications beyond a simple military exercise, with the North refusing to accept the Northern Limit Line (NLL), the de facto maritime border between the two Koreas.
The two sides remain technically at war since their 1950-53 conflict ended in a cease-fire, not a binding peace treaty. The navies of the two sides were engaged in skirmishes in the western waters near the NLL, drawn by the U.N. troops at the end of the war, in 1999, 2002 and 2009.
Pyongyang claims that the Yellow Sea border actually lies far south of the NLL.
Most recently, the North abruptly shelled Yeonpyeong Island last month, killing two marines and two construction workers. It claimed it was a self-defensive measure in response to the South’s naval drills in its waters at that time.
Meanwhile, the South Korean president stressed the importance of national unity against the North’s provocation.
“It is important for our people to be united,” Lee said.
“Should public opinions be split, the enemy will try to exploit it, even if our defense capability is strong and superb,” the president said as he was briefed by the home ministry on its major works next year.
His remarks were viewed as intended to head off political attacks from opposition parties. How to deal with the nuclear-armed communist neighbor is a longstanding source of ideological disputes in South Korea.
The main opposition Democratic Party had called for the South’s military to scrap its plan to stage the live-ammunition drills in the tense Yellow Sea, saying maintaining peace is a top priority.
Cheong Wa Dae confirmed a news report that Gen. Walter Sharp, commander of U.S. Forces Korea (USFK), and Washington’s ambassador to Seoul, Kathleen Stephens, visited Cheong Wa Dae during the weekend.
Their visit was to discuss the issue of the artillery training on Yeonpyeong Island, and they frequently consult with Cheong Wa Dae officials, presidential spokeswoman Kim Hee-jung said in a separate press briefing.
“The U.S. side said that it supports South Korea’s military training plan irrespective of North Korea’s response and that it will stay with us whatever happens,” Kim said. (*)