S. Korea president in surprise visit to island near N. Korea
SEOUL - Agence France-Presse
North Korean soldier stands guard before the United Nations Command (UNC) hands over a coffin containing the body of a North Korean soldier to the North, at the truce village of Panmunjom in Paju, north of Seoul, October 18, 2012. REUTERS PhotoSouth Korean President Lee Myung-Bak made a surprise visit Thursday to an island near the tense border with North Korea that was shelled by Pyongyang two years ago, a spokeswoman said.
"We must defend (the maritime border) to the last man," Lee was quoted as saying by the Yonhap news agency as he inspected an anti-artillery radar unit and artillery company on Yeonpyeong island.
"If North Korea provokes us, we have to retaliate strongly," Lee said.
Presidential spokeswoman Lee Mi-Yon said Lee's visit -- his first to the island since taking office in early 2008 -- was aimed at "checking the security status there ahead of the second anniversary of the shelling".
In protest at a firing exercise by South Korean troops, the North shelled Yeonpyeong -- near the disputed maritime border in the Yellow Sea -- on November 23, 2010, leaving two South Korean soldiers and two civilians dead.
The South retaliated with its own artillery bombardment on two targets in the North, triggering concerns that the incident could provoke a wider conflict.
The de-facto maritime boundary between the two Koreas -- the Northern Limit Line -- is not recognised by Pyongyang, which argues it was unilaterally drawn by the US-led United Nations forces after the 1950-53 Korean War.
Lee's visit came the same day that South Korea announced it would begin next week an annual, large-scale military exercise aimed at countering threats from North Korea.
The week-long Hoguk exercise beginning October 25 will involve 240,000 army, navy, air force and marine corps personnel, along with police officers, a spokesman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff told AFP.
About 500 US soldiers will also take part.
Some 28,500 US personnel are stationed in the South -- a legacy of the Korean War that ended with a ceasefire but not a peace treaty, leaving the two Koreas still technically at war.
"The exercise will feature drills against infiltration, regional provocations or an all-out war by North Korea," a defence ministry spokesman told reporters.
Tensions on the Korean peninsula have been raised in the past month by a series of maritime border confrontations, defections and a new US-South Korean deal to nearly triple the range of the South's missile systems.
There are also widespread concerns in the South that Pyongyang might do something provocative in the run up to South Korea's presidential election in December.