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NK leader-artillery exercise


SEOUL, March 14 (Yonhap) -- North Korean leader Kim Jong-un guided artillery exercises that targeted South Korean islands in the Yellow Sea, the communist country's media reported Thursday.

The Korean Central News Agency (KCNA) report monitored in Seoul said Kim oversaw live ammunition drills to test the capabilities of artillery batteries under real battle conditions. It said that exercises were aimed at the islands of Baengnyeong and Yeonpyeong that lie just south of the Northern Limit Line (NLL) that acts as the de facto sea border between the two Koreas. The North does not recognize the NLL and has tried to impose its own demarcation line that has been rejected by Seoul.

Kim's actions come as Pyongyang put its armed forces on high alert in response to the joint South Korea-U.S. Foal Eagle and Key Resolve military exercises that began in earnest on Monday. It also marks the first time that the North has specifically named South Korean territories for a possible strike, as they moved to ratchet up tensions on the Korean Peninsula.

In the past few days, the isolationist country said it will terminate the Armistice Agreement that halted the Korean War (1950-53) and unilaterally claimed all nonaggression pacts between the two countries were null and void. The North on several occasions has threatened to turn Seoul and Washington into a "sea of fire" and boasted it has significant nuclear weapons capability to deal with outside aggressors.

The North's official news wire service did not give the exact date of the exercise or the units involved, but it likely took place on Wednesday and involved batteries capable of targeting Baengnyeong and Yeonpyeong. It said the North Korean leader, who holds the rank of marshal in the Korean People's Army, was pleased with the level of accuracy of the artillery units.

The KCNA said the goal of the exercise was to destroy the headquarters of the South Korean Army and Marine Corps units on the two islands as well as other military installations. South Korea has a Harpoon anti-ship missile detachment, multiple rocket launcher systems and 155 millimeter howitzers on the islands, as well as tanks, anti-artillery radar and electronic intelligence gathering posts.

The latest report comes as North Korean media gave high profile coverage to Kim as he visited several front-line units along the country's southwestern coast that have seen clashes with the South.

There have been three naval clashes along the NLL since 1999 in addition to the sinking of a South Korean naval vessel by a North Korean submarine in March 2010 that left 46 sailors dead. The North also shelled Yeonpyeong Island in November 2010, which resulted in four deaths.

Related to the latest report, local North Korea watchers said that Kim has been paying a lot of attention to the country's artillery assets, with the leader even praising the Yeonpyeong shelling as the most satisfying military action following the 1953 armistice pact.

"Kim's guidance of artillery drills that target South Korean islands shows the hard-line stance the North is taking toward the joint military exercises," said Kim Yong-hyun, a professor of North Korean studies at Seoul's Dongguk University.

Others said that while the saber rattling may be nothing more than psychological warfare carried out by the North to intimidate its southern neighbor, there is a chance that the North may strike South Korea along the border region.

South Korea's military is keeping close tabs on the movement of North Korean forces and plans to closely monitor the national-level military exercise that is expected to start shortly on the eastern coast.

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