South Korean Marines patrol in the snow on Yeonpyeong Island, South Korea, Wednesday, 8 Dec. 2010. (AP)
North Korea fired artillery shells in a suspected military drill on Wednesday, 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.
Markets had been become largely inured to Pyongyang's provocations in recent years, but have become more sensitive to North Korean risk after last month's shelling of South Korean territory and Seoul's pledge to hit back hard if attacked again.
"It has been going in a different way than before qualitatively, therefore we are seeing it as a risk that we cannot ignore next year," said Goohoon Kwon, an economist with US investment bank Goldman Sachs in Seoul.
Wednesday's firing came just over two weeks after four South Koreans, including two civilians, were killed in shelling of Yeonpyeong island. That followed the North's revelations of advances in its nuclear programme, opening 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 US special envoy to North Korea, current New Mexico Governor Bill Richardson, will meet government officials in Pyongyang, a senior US official said.
The official, who did not want to be identified, 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 program.
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 for a two-day trip that will also take him to Japan.
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 behaviour 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.
The US and South Korean militaries also agreed on Wednesday to stage more joint military drills, following last week's giant exercise of the west coast, to deter North Korean aggression.