On heightened state of alert, ROK also sounds air-raid sirens
SEOUL - Air-raid sirens wailed and city traffic halted on Wednesday as the Republic of Korea (ROK) staged its biggest-ever civil defense drill, amid high tensions with the Democratic People's Republic of Korea (DPRK) and a United States warning about Pyongyang's nuclear program.
Pavements in Seoul and other cities quickly emptied as pedestrians scurried into buildings and subway stations during the 15-minute exercise, the most extensive since a civil defense law was passed in 1975.
The military said 12 jet fighters were mobilized, with one over flying the capital of 10 million people, to simulate air strikes by the DPRK.
Some Seoul residents found it hard to take the exercise seriously in a gleaming modern city that has been at peace since the end of the 1950-53 war.
"People don't care about these exercises because we think the North Koreans will never hit Seoul," said businessman Choi Duk-soo, calling for more realistic drills.
But the National Emergency Management Agency said the situation is grave after the North's deadly artillery attack on a border island on Nov 23 - the first shelling of a civilian area in the South since the war.
"Public concern has been growing over (the DPRK's) provocations," it said in a statement, citing continued military threats, high tensions in the Yellow Sea and the possibility of a third nuclear test by Pyongyang.
The DPRK's Nov 12 disclosure to visiting US experts of an apparently operational uranium enrichment plant sparked international concern that it may soon have a new source of bomb-making material.
It says this is part of a peaceful atomic energy program. But US experts say the plant could easily be reconfigured to produce weapons-grade uranium to augment the country's plutonium stockpile.
The US State Department said on Tuesday the DPRK has "at least one other" uranium enrichment site apart from the one disclosed at the Yongbyon complex.
"This remains a significant area of concern," said spokesman Philip Crowley.
The New York Times, citing anonymous US administration officials, said the new facility was "significantly more advanced" than work done by Iran.
The ROK's Chosun Ilbo newspaper, quoting intelligence sources, said the DPRK had dug a tunnel more than 500 meters deep at its nuclear test site in possible preparation for another test.
"If progress goes on at the current pace, (the DPRK) will have dug a cave one kilometer deep, the depth where it is possible to conduct a nuclear test, between March and May next year," one official was quoted as saying.
Diplomats are touring the region to discuss a response both to the artillery attack that killed four people and the potential new nuclear threat.
Russia's Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, at a meeting on Monday with his visiting DPRK counterpart Pak Ui-chun, expressed "deep concern" about the new uranium capability.
China has called for a new meeting of six-party envoys to resolve the latest crisis on the peninsula.
But the US, Japan and the ROK say a return to negotiations at this point could be seen as rewarding the North's aggression.
They want China to take a tougher line.
US Deputy Secretary of State James Steinberg and other US officials have left for Beijing and are expected to press it to take tougher action.
(China Daily 12/16/2010 page11)