S Korea to hold live-fire drills on Yeonpyeong island

South Korean troops on Yeonpyeong Island on 10 December 2010
Image caption Yeonpyeong Island lies just a few miles from the North Korean coastline

South Korea says it will hold live-fire exercises on Yeonpyeong island, the first since it was shelled by North Korea last month.

The one-day exercises would be held between 18 and 21 December and would be observed by the US-led UN Command, the South Korean military said.

Guns would be aimed away from North Korea, it said.

North Korea says that its bombardment of Yeonpyeong was a response to the last live-fire exercises held there.

Four South Koreans - two marines and two civilians - died in the 23 November shelling on the island, which lies close to the disputed inter-Korean western maritime border.

The incident has inflamed tensions on the Korean Peninsula, already high in the wake of the March sinking of a South Korean warship.

South Korea and the US have since carried out large-scale military exercises in the area.

South Korea's military said all civilians on the island would be encouraged to leave the area before the drills began.

The exact date of the exercises would depend on the weather, it said. About 20 US troops would also be present to provide medical and communications support.

US visit

Meanwhile New Mexico Governor Bill Richardson has arrived in North Korea on a visit aimed at easing regional tensions.

"Whenever the North Koreans contact me, they always want to send a message of some kind. My hope is that they provide messages that can lessen tensions on the Korean peninsula," he said.

"Some kind of negotiations need to take place. We will explore what makes sense."

Mr Richardson has stressed that his visit to Pyongyang is in a private capacity and he is not representing US President Barack Obama.

But he has in the past acted as a go-between with North Korea - with whom the US has no formal diplomatic ties.

In Beijing, US Deputy Secretary of State James Steinberg held talks with Dai Bingguo, the senior Chinese lawmaker who recently returned from talks in Pyongyang with North Korean leader Kim Jong-il.

China - which is North Korea's main trading partner and ally - has been calling for a resumption of six-party talks on ending Pyongyang's nuclear ambitions.

But South Korea and the US have said the North must stop its "provocative and belligerent" behaviour and take action to roll back its nuclear work.