South Korea conducted live-fire military drills Monday near its disputed sea boundary with North Korea despite Pyongyang's threat to respond with a "merciless" attack.
North Korea did not carry out the threat as it focuses on internal stability two months after the death of longtime leader Kim Jong Il and prepares for nuclear disarmament talks with the United States later this week. But with American forces scheduled to conduct additional military exercises with ally South Korea over the next few months, tensions are expected to remain high in the region.
The United States and North Korea's neighbors are closely watching how new leader Kim Jong Un, Kim Jong Il's son, navigates strained ties with rival South Korea, the planned U.S.-South Korean military drills and a long-running standoff over the country's nuclear weapons programs.
South Korea's drills took place Monday 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. North Korea called the latest exercise a "premeditated military provocation" and warned it would retaliate for what it considered an attack on its territory.
A North Korean officer told an Associated Press staffer in Pyongyang on Sunday that North Koreans would respond to any provocation with "merciless retaliatory strikes."
North Korea is 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.
Later Monday, South Korean troops on five islands near the disputed sea boundary fired artillery southward, away from nearby North Korea, a South Korean Defense Ministry official said on condition of anonymity.
North Korea's military maintained increased vigilance during Monday's drills, which ended after about two hours, though Seoul saw nothing suspicious, a South Korean Joint Chiefs of Staff officer said.
Analysts said the threats allow Pyongyang to show its anger over what it sees as a violation of its territory, but an immediate attack was unlikely during what is a delicate time for inter-Korean and U.S.-North Korean relations and for internal North Korean politics.