North Korea starts military drill

North Korea fires artillery shells in a suspected military drill today, spooking markets on an already tense peninsula, as the top US military official warned of more provocations from Pyongyang's 'bad guy'.

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SEOUL // North Korea fired artillery shells in a suspected military drill today, spooking markets on an already tense peninsula, as the top US military official warned of more provocations from Pyongyang's "bad guy".

South Korea's military said an unknown number of artillery shells from the North fell on its side of a disputed maritime border off the west coast, adding the firing was most likely part of regular exercises.

The South is also conducting live-fire drills in the area.

"It does not appear to be a matter of great concern," a South Korean military official said. However, jittery markets fell on news of artillery firing, but within minutes local shares and the won had recovered their losses.

The firing came just over two weeks after the North bombarded a South Korean island, killing four people, and revelations of advances in Pyongyang's nuclear programme which give it a second route to make an atomic bomb.

The attack set off a flurry of diplomatic activity involving Seoul, Washington, Tokyo and the North's ally Beijing, and next week, a former U.S. special envoy to North Korea, current New Mexico Governor Bill Richardson, will meet government officials in Pyongyang, a senior U.S. official said.

The official, who did not want to be indentified, said Richardson would not be "delivering a message" on this private trip, but the Washington Post reported he had been invited by top North Korean officials involved in the nuclear programme.

The two Koreas frequently conduct drills in the area around the Northern Limit Line (NLL) off the North's west coast. Pyongyang does not recognise the sea border which was established without its consent after the 1950-53 Korean war.

The test firing came as Admiral Mike Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, arrived in Seoul to show his "commitment and solidarity" to South Korea.

Mullen said there was "no doubt in my mind (provocations) will continue unless leaders step forward and put Pyongyang in a position where they realise their behavior has to change".

"This guy's a bad guy and when you're dealing with bad guys, you can't wish away what they're going to do," Mullen said of the North's iron ruler Kim Jong-il.

"Because of the actions taken by North Korea recently ... they're making (the region) a more dangerous place," he added.

Mullen's trip to South Korea and Japan follows talks in Washington on Monday between Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and her Japanese and South Korean counterparts. All three voiced grave concerns over the North Korean attacks and called on China to take action against its wayward ally.

Yesterday, Beijing hit back at the United States and its Asian allies for their refusal to talk to North Korea, saying dialogue was the only way to calm escalating tension on the divided Korean peninsula.

But Mullen said the Chinese must do more because "their economy is dependent on stability".

"They are a world leader and leaders must lead - particularly to prevent crises and to prevent the kinds of destabilising activities that are very evident coming out of the leadership in Pyongyang," he said.

China views the North as a strategic buffer against the US-allied democracy South Korea and is Pyongyang's largest trade partner and benefactor.

Deputy Secretary of State Jim Steinberg will lead a US delegation to China next week to try to persuade Beijing to put more pressure on Pyongyang despite Chinese fears that this may destablilise North Korea, a US official said.

Washington, Seoul and Tokyo have been lukewarm towards Beijing's proposal for emergency talks between the six regional powers, worried that they could be seen as rewarding Pyongyang for its deadly attack on a South Korean island two weeks ago.