South Korea announces series of military exercises

BEIJING — Just two days after staging artillery drills that some feared would bring North Korean retaliation and possibly spark war, South Korea announced Wednesday a massive series of military exercises by sea and land to begin today.

The latest announcement underlined the precarious security situation on the Korean Peninsula, which is at its most strained in many years, but there were conflicting accounts of the size and nature of the exercise.

A spokesman for the South Korean Defense Ministry said the exercises are the biggest this year and "are not related to North Korean provocations."

"It's an annual army and air force drill," spokesman Kwon Ki-hyeon told McClatchy Newspapers by telephone. He said the event will take place at a firing range.

By contrast, South Korea's Yonhap news service called the war games the "largest-ever ground and air live-fire drill near the border with North Korea." Yonhap also said the exercises — to include artillery, multiple-launch rocket systems, anti-aircraft guns, F-15 fighter jets and attack helicopters — were meant to deter North Korean "provocations."

The White House defended the exercises as defensive in nature. "I think exercises that have been announced well in advance, that are transparent, that are defensive in nature should in no way engender a response from the North Koreans," spokesman Robert Gibbs told reporters Wednesday.

Whatever the motivation for the war games, they're likely to exacerbate tensions on the peninsula, where North and South have been trading threats to unleash crushing military strikes if the other side acts in a manner that can be perceived as an attack.

In addition to the live-fire maneuvers today, Seoul began three days of naval exercises Wednesday in the Sea of Japan with warships and anti-submarine helicopters roughly 60 miles south of its maritime border with North Korea.