SEOUL, S. Korea — South Korean warships fired big guns into the Yellow Sea and dropped anti-submarine bombs in a large-scale military exercise Thursday, despite warnings from the North that the action would bring the peninsula to the brink of war.
North Korea quickly declared that it was repealing military guarantees for the safety of cross-border exchanges between the two Koreas and would scrap an accord with the South designed to prevent armed clashes at the maritime border. The North warned of "immediate physical strikes" if any South Korean ships enter its waters, wire services reported.
U.S. Gen. Walter Sharp, commander of 28,500 American troops stationed in South Korea, said North Korea should "cease all acts of provocation."
The growing tension comes a week after Seoul accused North Korea of shooting a torpedo that sank a navy frigate in March. In furious reaction, the government of North Korean leader Kim Jong Il — while indignantly denying that it sank the ship — said it would cut all relations with South Korea.
Kim's decision to stop guaranteeing safe border crossings could lead to the closure of the Kaesong industrial complex, which is just north of the heavily armed border and is the sole remaining symbol of economic cooperation between the two countries.
The March 26 sinking of the Cheonan warship has grown in the past week into a major international security crisis. Seoul has disclosed detailed evidence linking Pyongyang to the attack and has canceled most economic links with the North. The Obama administration is pressuring China — Kim's principal benefactor — to support U.N. Security Council sanctions against his government.
But the ship-sinking crisis has another dimension, one that is especially disorienting to young people in South Korea. Many of them have grown up thinking of North Korea as yesterday's irritant, one that their grandparents and parents had more or less salved.
The ship-sinking crisis, however, appears to have significantly altered that view.
"I never before factored in the possibility of a war," said Kim Sun-young, 32, a researcher in molecular science at Yonsei University in Seoul.