South Korean attack helicopters screamed through the skies above the Koreas' disputed Yellow Sea waters Wednesday in a display of power exactly a year after North Korea launched a deadly artillery attack on a front-line island.
Residents of Yeonpyeong Island laid flowers at statues to commemorate the four South Koreans killed in the barrage and sent aloft a balloon carrying a banner with their portraits. On the mainland, Prime Minister Kim Hwang-sik joined families of the victims at the National Cemetery south of the capital for a solemn tribute on a cold, windy day.
Kim Yong-sub, a former marine who was stationed on Yeonpyeong during the attack, laid a flower at the cemetery in his friends' honor.
"I still think a lot about that day," he said.
Wednesday's drills involving aircraft, rocket launchers and artillery guns took place off Baengnyeong Island, another front-line territory near the disputed maritime border, and were meant to send a strong message to North Korean rivals stationed within sight just miles (kilometers) away.
The exercises represent far greater firepower than the South Korean military mounted last year in response to the artillery shells showered on military garrisons and fishing villages on nearby Yeonpyeong, Joint Chiefs of Staff spokesman Lee Bung-woo said.
"South Korea's government will never compromise, and will take firm measures when it comes to the safety and security of our people and the country," Prime Minister Kim said.
South Korea's delayed response to the shelling at the time _ the first on a civilian area since the three-year Korean War ended with a truce in 1953 _ drew heavy criticism and concern that Seoul was unprepared for a North Korean provocation. The defense minister resigned, and successor Kim Kwan-jin has pledged a fierce air strike if the North stages another attack.
Two construction workers and two marines were killed, dozens of homes decimated and scores evacuated to the mainland. Most islanders have returned but remain traumatized by the attack, which turned the tiny island's downtown into an inferno.
"I often become tense when something goes 'boom,'" said Yoo Dae-geun, 33, who runs a restaurant on the island. "Whenever there are military drills, we all cannot work and must take refuge in bomb shelters. So, we cannot have normal daily lives."
Pyongyang blamed Seoul for provoking the attack, saying it struck after warning the South not to carry out live-fire drills in waters both Koreas claim as their territory.
"The pursuit of continued military confrontation and war will eventually bring about the fate of devastation," North Korea's main Rodong Sinmun newspaper said Wednesday, again accusing South Korea of provoking the attack. North Korea's official government website called the plan to conduct drills "reckless."
North Korea disputes the maritime border drawn by the U.N. at the close of the war, and three deadly naval gunfights have taken place in the Yellow Sea waters since 1999. South Korea also holds North Korea responsible for the sinking of one of its warships in March last year; 46 sailors were killed. Pyongyang denies involvement.
In the past year, South Korea has spent millions of dollars to beef up its arsenal in the Yellow Sea, installing additional radars, setting up a separate defense command and deploying precision-guided rockets designed to take out North Korea's hidden coastal artillery.
However, there have been recent signs that animosities between the rival Koreas are easing, with diplomats seeking to resume North Korean nuclear disarmament talks.
South Korean President Lee Myung-bak told officers that he was sorry North Korea has not yet apologized for the shelling, according to the presidential Blue House. Lee paid a visit Wednesday to a military command that handles the defense of the Yellow Sea area.
He said he expects Pyongyang to apologize if North Korea wants to improve the relations between the two Koreas.
Associated Press writers Sam Kim and Hyung-jin Kim contributed to this report from Seoul, South Korea.