Watch: South Korea, US forces hold joint exercises
The two Koreas traded hundreds of rounds of artillery fire across their disputed maritime border yesterday, forcing South Korean islanders to take shelter a day after the North drove up tensions by threatening a new nuclear test.
The exchange, triggered by a three-hour North Korean live-fire exercise that dropped shells into South Korean waters, was limited to untargeted shelling into the sea, military officials said.
South Korea's defence ministry said the North fired about 500 shells during the drill, 100 of them landing on the south side of the sea boundary.
The ministry said the South had responded to Pyongyang's "premeditated provocation" by firing 300 shells from K-9 self-propelled howitzer batteries based on its front-line islands.
"If the North takes issue with our legitimate returning of fire and uses it to make yet another provocation towards our sea and islands, we will make a resolute retaliation," ministry spokesman Kim Min-seok said.
Analysts said the incident, coming a day after Pyongyang threatened to conduct a "new" type of nuclear test, was largely a sign of the North's growing frustration with US resistance to resuming multi-party talks on its nuclear programme.
"I don't see that this ran any real risk of escalating into a serious clash," said Yang Moo-jin, a professor at the University of North Korean Studies in Seoul.
"It's really North Korea showing it intends to keep the pressure on to resume a dialogue."
Pyongyang sees negotiations as a chance to win material concessions and aid from the international community.
The exercise began at 12.15pm and South Korea, which had threatened to respond if any shells crossed the border, retaliated soon afterwards.
As a precaution, border island residents were evacuated to shelters, as South Korean fighter jets flew overhead. The evacuation order was lifted an hour after the North ended its drill.
In November 2010, North Korea shelled Yeonpyeong island just south of the sea boundary, killing four people and triggering concerns of a full-scale conflict.
China, the North's key ally, expressed concern and urged the two Koreas to exercise restraint.
Pyongyang has carried out a series of rocket and short-range missile launches in recent weeks, in a pointed protest at ongoing annual South Korea-US military exercises. Yesterday's incident coincided with a massive, amphibious landing drill by nearly 15,000 South Korean and US troops. Last week, the North upped the ante by test-firing two mid-range ballistic missiles capable of striking Japan.
North Korea has conducted three nuclear tests, the most recent - and most powerful - in February last year. Most experts believe it is still some way from mastering a miniaturised warhead, which would be a game-changer in assessing the North's nuclear arms capabilities.