South Korea Military Drills Escalates Tensions

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SEOUL, South Korea -- South Korea went ahead with plans to conduct live-fire military drills Monday, despite tensions on the Korean Peninsula being at the highest level since the Korean War ended in 1953.

This time North Korea said it will not retaliate, but the communist regime is known for making sudden moves to push the conflict between the two countries to the brink.

It's the most heavily fortified border in the world - the demarcation between North and South Korea, where armed soldiers from both sides have engaged in a stare down for more than 57 years.

In recent weeks, the long-standing cease fire was broken for the second time this year as North Korea fired an artillery barrage on an island near disputed waters along the border, killing four South Koreans.

The United States condemned the attack, with Adm. Mike Mullen calling for China to exert more pressure on North Korea.

"We must sustain stability, and I feel very strongly that it's important that the international powers focus on this, and particularly it's important that China focus on this," Mullen said.

As the United Nations Security Council works the diplomatic channels, South Korea's government and military decided to move forward Monday with live-fire exercises near the disputed area.

North Korea condemned the exercises and threatened further retaliation, sending those living in the area into air raid shelters.

Seoul, the metropolitan capital of South Korea, lies just an hour's drive south from the demilitarized zone. More than 10 million people live there and the overwhelming call from the public has been for stronger measures to deter the North Koreans.

The November attack occurred just a few miles off the west coast of South Korea, but the weekend crowds along the waterfront didn't seem too concerned about the possibility of another attack.

That might be because the attack had more to do with internal politics in North Korea than it did with foreign policy.

The health of North Korea's defacto leader, Kim Jong-il has been flagging in recent years, and the dictator's youngest son, Kim Jong-Un has been groomed to take his place.

The up-and-coming leader has been made a four-star general in the North Korean army, and some said the recent attacks are North Korea's way of manufacturing a few victories to elevate his standing with his countrymen.

Low-level attacks like those seen last month seem to take place whenever North Korea changes leadership, but many South Koreans are worried Kim-Jong Un is more radical than his father, meaning this time may be different.

"When we heard the news we were very concerned about it," said Nick Kim, pastor at Ansan Christian Church in Seoul. "But the thing is, we've had like a series of events like this even in this year. But this time we feel it is really serious."

Possibly the strongest deterrent to the North's military intentions would be the more than 25,000 U.S. troops stationed across South Korea.

"The Korean War never actually ended, it simply stopped," said Lt. Col. Art Pace, who has been serving the troops there a chaplain for over a year.

"So we are still at armistice. So at this point the soldiers coming here have a very real mission. And that mission is the protection of the Republic of Korea," he continued.

"They are all over this peninsula in this defense, and in the support of the Republic of Korean Army, which is a very fine army all by itself," he added.

For now the residents of Seoul are going nervously on with life, which includes Christmas shopping while the U.N. continues emergency talks to try and diffuse the situation.

Chaplain Pace hopes Americans will remember to pray for those troops who are away from their families, standing in the gap in South Korea during the holiday season.

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Chuck Holton

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