YEONPYEONG ISLAND, South Korea – South Korea's military staged live-fire drills from an island just miles (kilometers) from rival shores Monday, despite Pyongyang's threats of catastrophic retaliation for the maneuvers.
Seoul launched fighter jets, evacuated hundreds of residents near its tense land border with the North and sent residents of islands near disputed waters into underground bunkers in case of attack, but the North finally said it would hold its own fire.
South Koreans watch a live TV breaking news about South Korea's live fire artillery at Seoul train station in Seoul on December 20, 2010. South Korea held a live-fire military drill on a border island and scrambled fighter jets, despite North Korean threats of deadly retaliation, as UN diplomacy on the crisis broke down.
The 90-minute exercise came nearly a month after the North responded to earlier maneuvers by shelling Yeonpyeong Island, killing two marines and two construction workers in its first attack targeting civilian areas since the 1950-53 Korean War. That clash sent tensions soaring between the two countries — which are still technically at war.
In an emergency meeting Sunday, U.N. diplomats meeting in New York failed to find any solution to the crisis, but there was some sign of diplomacy Monday, as a high-profile American governor announced what he said were two nuclear concessions from the North.
North Korea called Monday's drills a "reckless military provocation" but said after they ended that it was holding its fire because Seoul had changed its firing zones.
The official carried a military statement that suggested that the North viewed Monday's drills differently from the ones that provoked it last month because South Korean shells landed farther south of the North's shores.
The North claims the waters around Yeonpyeong as its territory, and during last month's artillery exchange, the North accused the South of firing artillery into its waters; the South said it fired shells southward, not toward the North.
South Korea's Joint Chiefs of Staff said its artillery was fired in the same direction as during last month's maneuvers: toward waters southwest of the island, not toward the North.
"North Korea appeared to have issued this statement because it was afraid" of a full-blown war with South Korea, a Joint Chiefs of Staff officer said on condition of anonymity, citing department rules.
He noted that North Korea has always resorted to surprise attacks on South Korea rather than launching a straightforward attack.
During the drills on Yeonpyeong, a tiny enclave of fishing communities and military bases about seven miles (11 kilometers) from North Korean shores, South Korean marines fired about 1,500 artillery shells into the island's water, Yonhap news agency reported, citing unidentified military sources.
About 20 U.S. intelligence and communications personnel took part in the drills, and nine representatives from the American-led U.N. Command observed the maneuvers, another Joint Chiefs of Staff officer said, on condition of anonymity.
The U.S. troops were to stay on the island to monitor North Korea's moves, he said.
Before the drills Monday, South Korea's military said that it would "immediately and sternly" deal with any provocation by the North. Fighter jets flew over South Korean airspace on a mission to deter North Korean attacks, a Defense Ministry official said. He spoke on condition of anonymity, citing department rules.
Hundreds of South Koreans living near the tense land border with North Korea were either evacuated to bomb shelters or taken to areas farther south ahead of the drills, local officials said.
Residents, local officials and journalists on Yeonpyeong and four other islands moved to underground shelters, Ongjin County government spokesman Won Ji-young said.
On Yeonpyeong, residents in an underground shelter huddled on the floor as a South Korean soldier showed them how to use a gas mask, according to footage shot by Associated Press Television News.
"I feel the same as last Nov. 23, when North Korea fired artillery at us," said Oh Gui-nam, a 70-year-old island resident. "My emotions are all tangled up."
South Korean President Lee Myung-bak ordered preparations to cope with any possible attack by North Korea, even after the drills were over.
The U.N. Security Council, meanwhile, failed Sunday to agree on a statement to address rising tensions.
The United States and others had wanted the council to condemn North Korea for attacks that have helped send relations between the Koreas to their lowest point in decades. But diplomats said China, the North's major ally, strongly objected.
Several bloody naval skirmishes have occurred along the disputed western sea border between the two Koreas in recent years. The North does not recognize the U.N.-drawn sea border in the area.
In a diplomatic push, New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson, a frequent unofficial envoy to North Korea and former U.S. ambassador to the U.N., held meetings with top leaders in the foreign ministry and military during a four-day visit to Pyongyang. He called for maximum restraint.
Richardson said the North agreed to let U.N. inspectors visit the North's main nuclear complex to make sure it's not producing enriched uranium for a nuclear bomb, The New York Times, which accompanied Richardson to Pyongyang, reported.
The North expelled U.N. inspectors last year and recently showed a visiting American scientist a new, highly advanced uranium enrichment facility that could give it a second way to make atomic bombs, in addition to its plutonium programs. Richardson also said Pyongyang was willing to sell South Korea 12,000 plutonium fuel rods, the Times said.
Richardson had been set to brief reporters Monday night in Beijing, but his flight was delayed. He told Associated Press Television News at the Pyongyang airport, "We had positive results."