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SKorea conducts live-fire drills near disputed sea boundary despite NKorean threat to attack
SEOUL, South Korea (AP) ' South Korea on Monday conducted live-fire military drills from five islands near its disputed sea boundary with North Korea, despite Pyongyang's threat to attack.
South Korea reported no immediate action by North Korea following the drills, which ended after about two hours. They took place in an area of the Yellow Sea that was the target of a North Korean artillery attack in 2010 that killed four South Koreans and raised fears of a wider conflict.
The heightened tension comes two months after the death of North Korean leader Kim Jong Il. His young son Kim Jong Un has taken the helm of the nation of 24 million.
South Korean military officials said they were ready to repel any attack. Residents on the front-line islands were asked to go to underground shelters before the drills started, according to South Korea's Defense Ministry and Joint Chiefs of Staff.
Before the drills began, North Korea said it would launch a "thousands-fold more severe" punishment than the 2010 shelling if South Korea conducted the drills.
North Korea is fully prepared for a "total war," and the drills will lead to a "complete collapse" of ties between the Koreas, the North's Committee for the Peaceful Reunification of Korea said in a statement carried Monday by the official Korean Central News Agency.
Seoul is closely monitoring the reaction of North Korea. The Korean Peninsula has been technically at war for about 60 years.
Officials from North Korea and the United States are to meet this week in Beijing for talks on the country's nuclear weapons program. The discussions will be the first such bilateral contact since Kim Jong Il's Dec. 17 death.
Ties between the Koreas plummeted following the 2010 shelling of front-line Yeonpyeong Island and a deadly warship sinking blamed on Pyongyang. North Korea has flatly denied its involvement in the sinking, which killed 46 South Korean sailors.
South Korean troops on the five islands fired artillery into waters southward, away from nearby North Korea, a Defense Ministry official said. South Korea's military is ready to repel any North Korean provocation, the official said on condition of anonymity, citing department rules.
Residents on the islands, many of them elderly, filed into underground bomb shelters and huddled around portable heaters during the drills.
More than 1,000 people evacuated to shelters, but few came to the mainland, despite the North Korean threat, according to Onjin County, which governs the islands. Ferry services linking the islands and Incheon port on the mainland operated normally, county officials said. Officials say requests to evacuate are made each time South Korea conducts drills.
Soon after Seoul told Pyongyang of its live-fire training plans Sunday, North Korea's military called the drills a "premeditated military provocation" and warned it would retaliate for an attack on its territory.
A North Korean officer warned in an interview with The Associated Press in Pyongyang that North Koreans were always ready to "dedicate their blood to defend their inviolable territory."
"We are monitoring every movement by the South Korean warmongers. If they provoke us, there will be only merciless retaliatory strikes," officer Sin Chol Ung from the North's Korean People's Security Forces said Sunday.
Three deadly naval clashes since 1999 have taken a few dozen lives in the waters contested by the two Koreas.
The maritime line separating the countries was drawn by the U.S.-led U.N. Command without Pyongyang's consent at the close of the 1950-53 Korean War, which ended with a truce, not a peace treaty, leaving the peninsula in a state of war. North Korea routinely argues that the line should run farther south.
On Yeonpyeong Island, which is just seven miles (11 kilometers) from North Korean shores, residents clearly heard the sound of South Korean artillery fire, an island official said in a phone interview. About 490 people on the island evacuated to shelters, while the rest of the 600 to 700 residents stayed at home or went to work as usual, he said, speaking on condition of anonymity because he wasn't authorized to talk to reporters.
Officials routinely ask islanders to evacuate whenever South Korea conducts military drills, but the evacuation is not compulsory, the official said.
Kim Jong Un has been declared "supreme leader" of North Korea's people, party and military, but is expected to gain new top titles and positions as part of the process to solidify his role as the third-generation Kim to lead North Korea.
Early Monday, the powerful Political Bureau of the Central Committee of North Korea's ruling Workers' Party announced it would convene a special political conference in mid-April to "glorify" the late leader and to rally around his son.
The last time such a conference was held was in September 2010, when Kim Jong Un was named to a high-ranking party and military post in the first public confirmation that he was being groomed to succeed his father.
His grandfather, Kim Il Sung, remains "eternal president," while Kim Jong Il ruled as chairman of the National Defense Commission.
Kim Jong Il died of a heart attack at age 69. South Korea has barred all but two private delegations from visiting Pyongyang to pay their respects ' a decision that infuriated North Korea's leadership.
South Korea also plans joint anti-submarine drills with the United States this week, but the training site is farther south from the disputed sea boundary, South Korean military officials said. About 28,500 U.S. troops are stationed in South Korea as what U.S. and South Korean officials call deterrence against North Korean aggression.
North Korea says joint U.S.-South Korea drills are a rehearsal for a northward invasion.