SEOUL (Reuters) - South Korea is to hold a live-fire artillery drill on an island shelled by North Korea last month, the first such exercise on Yeonpyeong island since the attack that the North said was a response to a provocation by Seoul.
The decision came as U.S. troubleshooter Bill Richardson headed to Pyongyang to try to “lessen tensions” on the Korean peninsula after the November barrage that killed four people and thrust conflict in the region back on to the radar of global investors.
“Maritime firing drills will be held in South Korean waters south-west of Yeonpyeong between December 18 and 21,” a Joint Chief of Staffs statement said on Thursday.
A government source told Reuters the drills would be held on one day only.
South Korea called off live firing drills in the islands near the Northern Limit Line, the disputed maritime border between the North and South, after the shelling of Yeonpyeong.
North Korea says it shelled the island in response to South Korean actions and the South has said that one of its artillery units on the island had conducted a regular firing exercise prior to the North’s attack, although Seoul has said the firing exercise was directed away from North Korea.
Concerns over North Korea have been growing and reports say that the reclusive country has built more plants to enrich uranium, a material that could be used in nuclear weapons, and may be readying a third nuclear test for March-May 2011.
While the U.S., Japan, South Korea and Russia have criticized the North for its nuclear program and called on it to abandon its weapons as promised in a 2005 deal, Pyongyang has said it will not end the program.
The North wants six-party talks involving itself, the United States, South Korea, Russia, Japan and China to restart but will not accept preconditions.
Richardson, the New Mexico governor who has in the past acted as a go-between with North Korea, arrived in Pyongyang on Thursday on a mission to try to reduce tensions.
“My message to them will be we need peace, we need to stop some of these aggressive actions, we need North Korea to participate in the 2005 agreement to denuclearize and we need to stop some of the aggressive actions, especially with respect to South Korea,” he told journalists in Beijing earlier.
Additional reporting by Christopher Buckley in BEIJING; Editing by Alex Richardson