South Korean officials cite Yeonpyeong as an instance in which their forces returned fire too late and too timidly — a mistake that they pledge will not be repeated. If faced with a similar attack, President Park Geun-hye has told her military, the South should strike back “without political consideration” and without waiting for top-level approval.
South Korea’s hardened line, analysts say, provides an important backdrop as North Korea threatens the region — and the United States — with nuclear and more small-scale artillery attacks. The prospect of a South Korean counterstrike, the analysts say, might explain why the North hasn’t made good on any of its recent threats. But it also means that if the North does attack, the conflict is far likelier to escalate.
South Korea’s new stance is not just rhetorical. After the Yeonpyeong shelling, Seoul revised its rules of engagement, allowing front-line commanders to “take aggressive action . . . and then report it up the chain of command,” Lee Myung-bak, South Korea’s president from 2008 until this year, recently told a major South Korean daily. Lee added that the United States was initially opposed to the rule changes.
Although the United States has about 80,000 troops in the region, with 28,500 of them in South Korea, it would be up to the South to defend itself in the opening minutes of a North-led attack. Still, Seoul and Washington recently drew up what they call a “counterprovocation” plan that lays out potential responses to North Korean attacks.
The goal of the plan, Adm. Samuel Locklear III, commander of U.S. troops in the Pacific, told Congress last week, is to ensure that responses are “predictable” and to prevent an “unnecessary escalation that none of us want.”
A war zone
A majority of South Koreans support a strong response to any attack from their neighbor, but Yeonpyeong, just seven miles from North Korea, represents the emotional heart of that sentiment. Residents here talk about the North as an archenemy, one overdue for revenge.
“They’re bastards,” said Park Myeong-seon, 68, a grandmother of three. “They attacked civilians.”
Yeonpyeong has long hosted a unit of South Korean marines, and it is heavily fortified with underground bunkers and camouflaged firing areas. But before the shelling, few of the island’s 2,000 residents thought they were under threat. Yeonpyeong was famous because it was so difficult to leave: The daily ferry to the mainland is canceled even in moderate winds.