South Korean president takes responsibility for failing to protect country, signals hardened military stance toward North

Rescuers found the burned bodies Wednesday of two islanders killed in a North Korean artillery attack, the first civilian deaths from a skirmish that marked a dramatic escalation of tensions between the rival Koreas. (Nov. 24)
By Keith B. Richburg
Washington Post Foreign Service
Monday, November 29, 2010; 7:00 AM

SEOUL - South Korea will abandon its long-standing policy of not responding militarily to the North's hostile acts, President Lee Myung-bak said, following the artillery bombardment of a South Korean island last week that killed four people, two of them civilians.

"In the past, North Korea has provoked us on many occasions, but this is the first time they have made a direct attack on South Korean soil," said Lee, making his first public remarks since the Nov. 23 attack on civilian-inhabited Yeonpyeong island heightened fears of an all-out conflict. "Launching a military attack on civilians is a crime against humanity, even during wartime."

North Korea maintained its bellicose stance on Monday, with a commentary in the state-run media saying the country was not afraid of a war.

"It would be a miscalculation if the U.S. and South Korean warlike forces attempt to astound and pressure us by deploying a nuclear-powered aircraft carrier," said a commentary carried by the official Korea Central News Agency, KCNA. "We don't want war, but never are afraid of one."

The United States and South Korea on Sunday began a four-day joint military exercise with participation by the nuclear-powered USS George Washington. On Monday, the operation was to include a live-fire drill by multiple aircraft from the massive ship, which carries 6,000 sailors and 75 fighter jets.

South Korean news media quoted a Korean military official as saying the aircraft would be firing on mock targets in the water, while South Korean Aegis destroyers will practice detecting and destroying targets.

The Associated Press reported early Monday that South Korea also was planning to conduct live-fire drills on Yeongpyeong Tuesday. But within hours, the wire service said plans for those exercises had been shelved.

South Korea's Lee, speaking earlier at the presidential palace known as Blue House, outlined a series of past provocations from the North stretching back two decades. They included the attempted assassination of the South Korean president in Rangoon, Burma, in 1983, the bombing of a South Korean airliner in 1987, and the sinking of a South Korean warship, the Cheonan, in March.

Lee said South Korea tolerated the provocations "in the belief that one day North Korea will change, and because of our hope for peace on the Korean Peninsula." He said South Korea has continued to engage in talks with Pyongyang and has given humanitarian assistance to the economically troubled country, but North Korea continued its pursuit of nuclear weapons and continued its attacks.

Now, Lee said, "South Koreans realize that tolerance and generosity bring more provocation." He said that South Korea would strengthen its military capability and would "make North Korea pay the due price by all means for its provocation from now on."

Baek Seung-joo, a researcher at the Korea Institute for Defense Analysis, called the speech "a turning point for South Korean government policy dealing with North Korea...With the nation's support, Lee will make sure any further provocation is met with military action."

North Korea, for its part, showed no sign of backing down, saying in the commentary reported by the South Korean news agency Yonhap that, "If internal and external war maniacs make a provocation again, we will counter it without hesitation, grub up the base of the aggressors entirely and cleanse the root cause of war clearly."

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