Image: South Korean guns fire live rounds during drill
Park Ji-ho  /  AP
South Korean Army K-9 self-propelled guns fire live rounds during military exercises in Pocheon, South Korea, on Thursday.
msnbc.com news services
updated 12/23/2010 2:47:41 PM ET 2010-12-23T19:47:41

North Korea's minister of armed forces said Thursday that its military was prepared to wage a "holy war" against the South using its nuclear deterrent after what he called Seoul's attempt to initiate conflict.

Minister Kim Yong Chun repeated Pyongyang's charge that the South had been preparing to start a war by conducting live-fire drills off the west coast, speaking at a rally to mark leader Kim Jong Il's rise to the country's top military post 19 years ago.

He was quoted by North Korea's KCNA news agency which regularly threatens the South, but which had up to now been relatively restrained in its criticism of the military drills.

"To counter the enemy's intentional drive to push the situation to the brink of war, our revolutionary forces are making preparations to begin a holy war at any moment necessary based on nuclear deterrent," KCNA quoted Kim as telling the rally in Pyongyang.

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His remarks came shortly after South Korean fighter jets dropped bombs and tanks fired artillery in the South's largest air and ground firing drills of the year — a month after North Korea's deadly shelling of a front-line island. The thundering display of force came as President Lee Myung-bak visited with soldiers at a base near the border.

KCNA had said earlier that the maneuvers were "madcap" and "offensive," describing the South Korean military as "puppet warmongers."

"(South Korea) is trying to hide the provocative nature toward the North of the war exercises," it said.

The South Korean drills, at training grounds in mountainous Pocheon about 20 miles from the Koreas' heavily fortified border, signaled the country's determination to demonstrate and hone its military strength at the risk of further escalation with North Korea.

Hills erupt in smoke
Tanks raced down mountain roads firing artillery rounds. The boom of cannons echoed through the valley and the hills erupted in smoke.

Rockets streamed across the valley and slammed into the side of a hill as helicopters overhead fired rockets at targets and F-15 fighters zoomed by dropping bombs.

Image: F-15K fighter jets drop bombs during military exercises
Wally Santana  /  AP
Two F-15K fighter jets drop bombs during military exercises on Thursday in Pocheon, South Korea.

The drills, which lasted about 40 minutes, were the armed forces' largest joint firing exercises this year, and the biggest-ever wintertime air and ground firing exercises, government and army officials said on condition of anonymity, citing department rules.

Forty-seven similar exercises have taken place this year but Thursday's maneuvers were scheduled in response to the North Korean attack, according to army officials.

Exactly one month ago, routine South Korean live-fire drills from Yeonpyeong Island in the Yellow Sea triggered a shower of North Korean artillery that killed two marines and two construction workers.

It was the first military attack on a civilian area since the 1950-53 Korean War ended in a truce.

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North Korea, which claims the waters around the South Korean-held island lying just 7 miles from its shores as its territory, accused the South of sparking the exchange by ignoring Pyongyang's warnings against staging the live-fire drills near their disputed maritime border.

Amid international concerns of all-out war on the tense Korean peninsula, South Korea has pushed ahead with military exercises over the past several weeks, including live-fire drills from Yeonpyeong Island and Thursday's exercises.

"We will thoroughly punish the enemy if it provokes us again as with the shelling of Yeonpyeong Island," Brig. Gen. Ju Eun-sik, chief of the South Korean army's 1st Armored Brigade, said in a statement Wednesday.

The two Koreas remain technically at war because their 1950s conflict ended in a cease-fire, not a peace treaty.

In a rare trip to the front line, South Korea's Lee visited a military unit near the border to inspect defensive readiness against Pyongyang.

"We had believed patience would ensure peace on this land, but that was not the case," Lee told troops.

Lee has replaced his top defense officials with more hawkish military men, a response to criticism of a perceived weak response to hostile acts from the North.

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The military tension over the past month has been the worst in more than a decade, and comes on the heels of the March sinking of a South Korean warship that Seoul blames on Pyongyang, but which North Korea denies attacking. Forty-six sailors died in that incident.

South Korea's navy also was conducting annual anti-submarine exercises off the east coast.

In Pocheon, dozens of soldiers and civilians, including schoolchildren in bright yellow jackets, watched the drills.

"We are facing a crisis because of North Korea, so I came to see this air and ground operation. I want to feel and see the level of South Korea's armed forces," said Kim Tae-dong, 70. "Another North Korean provocation will happen. We should prepare our military perfectly for that."

Timeline: North Korea attacks (on this page)

China, the impoverished North's only major ally, has urged dialogue to resolve the crisis and has been reluctant lay to blame, frustrating Washington and its allies which want Beijing to do more to rein in Pyongyang.

Barack Obama is expected to press this point when Chinese President Hu Jintao visits the United States on January 19 .

The Associated Press and Reuters contributed to this report.

Photos: Tension in the Koreas

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  1. A South Korean border guard mans a post through a fence draped with re-unification ribbons near the border village of Panmunjom in Paju, South Korea, on Dec. 22, 2010. South Korea vowed Wednesday to "punish the enemy" as hundreds of troops, fighter jets, tanks and attack helicopters prepared massive new drills near the heavily armed border a month after a deadly North Korean artillery attack. (Wally Santana / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  2. A North Korean defector takes part in a candle light vigil on the eve of the one month anniversary of the North Korea's attack on Yeonpyeong Island in downtown Seoul, South Korea, on Dec. 22. (Ng Han Guan / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  3. A combination of photos shows North Korean soldiers taking part in a shooting exercise at a field in Kaepoong county, on the north side of the demilitarized zone (DMZ) separating the two Koreas, in this picture taken from south of the DMZ in Paju, about 31 miles north of Seoul, on Dec. 22. (Jo Yong-hak / Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  4. South Korean soldiers patrol a seashore in Dangjin, about 120 km 75 miles south of Seoul on December 21. (Yonhap / Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  5. Bae Bok-soon (R), an older sister of Bae Bok-chul, cries during the funeral for the two civilians who died when North Korea shelled Yeonpyeong Island on November 23, in Incheon, west of Seoul on De. 6. (Jo Yong-hak / Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  6. Crew members watch as an F/A-18E Super Hornet lands on the deck of the aircraft carrier USS George Washington during a naval exercise with South Korea in the Yellow Sea on Tuesday, Nov. 30. The drills come amid heightened tension in the region after a North Korean artillery attack on South Korea's Yeonpyeong island last week. (Park Ji-hwan / AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  7. Staff watch radar screens in the Combat Direction Center on the USS George Washington during the military drills off South Korea. (Wally Santana / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  8. Former South Korean special agents whose mission was to infiltrate North Korea, sing a military song during a rally on the Yeonpyeong island, South Korea. About 85 former agents, who criticized the North's attack and urged the South Korean government to punish Pyongyang, landed the island Nov. 30 and said they would stay for a week to help with reconstruction. (Lee Jin-man / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  9. South Korean marines await navy ships carrying military equipment on Yeonpyeong island on Tuesday, Nov. 30. (Yonhap / Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  10. North Korean defectors and anti-North Korea activists release balloons for North Korea containing $1,000 in $1 notes and anti-North Korean leaflets in Paju, north of Seoul. (Jo Yong-hak / Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  11. South Korean middle school students learn how to use a gas mask in a mock chemical attack in Seoul. (Ahn Young-joon / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  12. During a rally denouncing last week's bombardment, Korea Freedom Federation members shout outside the Chinese Embassy in Seoul on Nov. 29. (Ahn Young-joon / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  13. South Korean marines watch President Lee Myung-Bak's news conference on a television minitor on Yeonpyeong island on Nov. 29. Lee condemned North Korea's recent shelling of the South Korean border island, calling an attack against civilians an "inhumane" crime. (Jeon Heon-Kyun / EPA) Back to slideshow navigation
  14. South Korean ships stage off the coast of South Korea's Yeonpyeong Island on Nov. 28 as war drills by the United States and South Korea began. (David Guttenfelder / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  15. South Korean protesters hold candles during a rally in Seoul opposing the military exercise between South Korea and the United States. (Park Ji-hwan / AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  16. South Korean women take cover inside a bomb shelter on Yeonpyeong Island after authorities sounded the alarm over a possible North Korean rocket attack on Nov. 28. It proved to be a false alarm. (David Guttenfelder / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  17. A North Korean soldier, right, looks back as she and another soldier patrol on a pathway along the bank of the Yalu River near Sinuiju, North Korea, Nov. 28. (Andy Wong / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  18. A South Korean police car is reflected in the shattered glass of a restaurant window along a seaside road on Yeonpyeong island on Nov. 27. (David Guttenfelder / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  19. Former South Korean marines burn images of North Korean leader Kim Jong Il, right, and his son Kim Jong Un, during a rally Nov. 27 in Seoul. (Wally Santana / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  20. Kim Oh-bock, mother of Seo Jung-woo, a South Korean marine killed in the Nov. 23 North Korean bombardment, cries as she holds his casket during a funeral service Nov. 27 at a military hospital in Seongnam. (Ahn Young-joon / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  21. South Korean marines carry flag-draped caskets of two comrades during a funeral service Nov. 27 in Seongnam. (Ahn Young-joon / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  22. The mother of South Korean marine Moon Kwang-wook, another marine killed by North Korea's attack on Yeonpyeong Island, cries Nov. 27 at her son's funeral. (Kim Kyung-hoon / Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  23. South Korean protesters denouncing North Korean attack on an island close to the border between the two nations burn a North Korean flag in Seoul on Nov. 24. After North Korea's strike, South Korea and the United States said they would launch four-day naval exercises in the Yellow Sea involving an American aircraft carrier. (Jung Yeon-Je / AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  24. South Korean protesters trample on a picture of North Korea's leader Kim Jong Il in Seoul on Nov. 24. (Wally Santana / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  25. A Buddhist monk shouts slogans with protesters at a rally denouncing North Korea in Seoul on Nov. 24. (Truth Leem / Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  26. A man walks past a house wrecked by artillery shells fired by North Korea on Yeonpyeong island, Nov. 24. (Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  27. Destroyed houses are seen on Yeonpyeong island on Nov. 24. (Dong-A Ilbo / AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  28. South Korean survivors react upon their arrival at a port in Incheon, west of Seoul, South Korea on Nov. 24. (Lee Jin-man / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  29. A destroyed house is seen on Nov. 24 after it was hit by artillery shells fired by North Korea on Yeonpyeong Island. (Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  30. South Korean marines, who were injured when North Korean artillery shelled Yeonpyeong island, sit on beds at a military hospital in Seongnam on Nov. 24. (Yonhap / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  31. South Korean residents take shelter from North Korea's attack on Yeonpyeong island, South Korea, Nov. 24. (AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  32. People stand near destroyed houses on Yeonpyeong Island, South Korea, Nov. 24. (AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  33. South Korean police officers load relief supplies for villagers of Yeonpyeong Island, at a port in Incheon, west of Seoul, South Korea, Nov. 24. (Lee Jin-man / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  34. South Korean residents take shelter from North Korea's attack on Yeonpyeong island on Nov. 23. (AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  35. South Korean Red Cross workers load relief supplies bound for Yeonpyeong Island at a port in Incheon, west of Seoul, Nov. 24. (Yonhap / Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  36. A resident of the Yeonpyeong Island arrives at Incheon port, South Korea, on Nov. 23. (Kim Chul-soo / EPA) Back to slideshow navigation
  37. A picture taken off television shows the moment of impact of one of the artillery shells fired by North Korea onto the South Korean island of Yeonpyeong. (Reuters TV) Back to slideshow navigation
  38. This picture taken by a South Korean tourist shows huge plumes of smoke rising from Yeonpyeong Island in the disputed waters of the Yellow Sea on Nov. 23. North Korea fired dozens of artillery shells onto the South Korean island, killing two people, setting homes ablaze and triggering retaliatory fire by the South. It was one of the most serious clashes between the two sides in decades. (AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
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Video: Richardson on Koreas: ‘Time has come for diplomacy’

  1. Closed captioning of: Richardson on Koreas: ‘Time has come for diplomacy’

    >>> and south korea continue to escalate. this is video of what south korea is calling the biggest live fire drill ever, and now north korea is threatening a nuclear holy war . all this week the south has been conducting land drills and exercises. at first the north said the drills were not worth responding to, but now it is saying it will use its nuclear weapons if attacked. joining me now is governor bill richardson of new mexico. he just returned from spending five days in north korea and is calling this situation a tinderbox. thank you for joining us, governor.

    >> thank you, tamron.

    >> absolutely. you said the military exercises by the south threaten to ignite the violence. here we see another show of force by the south. what's your spongs to the latest video that we're seeing there?

    >> well, what i want is the north to do what they did with the last few drills and not respond. these are drills, but they're fairly routine naval drills. but again, the tension is so high, the potential for miscalculation is so high that i just think that it's important now to bring diplomacy in. maybe get the united nations involved. i do give credit to north korea for not responding last time and for agreeing for some arms control initiatives that they said they would respond when i requested more. more nuclear monitors at the nuclear site. selling their spent fuel rods to south korea , an arms control measure. but, you know, with this situation being such a tinderbox tinderbox, i'm concerned. i think time has come for diplomacy.

    >> you're not alone. but many are looking at china and saying they need to do more to help the situation.

    >> well, there's no question about it, tamron. in the past china has been relur reluctant to get involved with the north koreans . i told them they were acting in an bad way. you get these little incidents back and forth. this rhetoric of the north koreans . they always do it. they inflame things. you can't take that seriously. there will not be nuclear weapons , i believe. but you don't want a little miscalculation that will draw both sides into shooting at each other. and that's the danger.

    >> well, the state department said your visit was a pure private visit and you would not convey a message from the united states government . what was your goal in making this littest trip? and did you accomplish that goal?

    >> well, i did accomplish that goal. i postponed the trip twice at the request of the administration. they signed off on this last trip. but emphasize d maybe this will get you back to talks. that was my impression in my visit last week but they have to change their behavior. you know, you can only carry out peaceful intentions so far.

    >> well, i have to transition before i let you go from obviously the tinderbox of utmost concern. i want to

Interactive: North Korea attack

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