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

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."

In North Korea, where the media and other channels of communication are tightly controlled by the government, such commentaries are akin to official government statements.

The attack on the island exposed weaknesses in the South Korean defense system, which the government has in recent days promised to mend. South Korean troops took 13 minutes to return artillery fire - and by that time, scores of houses and buildings were already destroyed.

The military has since announced plans to upgrade its weaponry and to give front-line troops more flexible rules of engagement.

The attack has also become a political crisis for the government, forcing the resignation of the defense minister, who took the blame for the delayed response. Lee was criticized for not taking a tougher line against the North.

North Korea fired nearly 200 artillery rounds onto Yeonpyeong, which lies close to the two countries' disputed maritime border.

Over the weekend, North Korea seemed to offer an apology of sorts for the deaths of the two civilians, saying, "If that is true, it is very regrettable." But the North blamed Seoul's military, for putting civilians in the way of its artillery as "human shields."

The U.S.-South Korean military exercises are intended "to send a very powerful signal of deterrence," Adm. Mike Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said in a television interview on CNN.

North Korea has responded that it will turn the entire area into "a merciless shower of fire" if its territorial waters are violated.

The drills are taking place about 75 miles south of Yeonpyeong. South Korea's Yonhap news agency said the E-8C joint surveillance target attack radar system, known as STARS, had been deployed to detect any North Korean air activity during the drill.

The crisis has placed intense pressure on China to try to rein in its erratic and unpredictable North Korean ally. After refusing to criticize Pyongyang for the attack, China scrambled its diplomats over the weekend, including sending Dai Bingguo - China's equivalent of the national security adviser - to Seoul for talks.

KCNA also reported on Monday that the North's reclusive leader, Kim Jung Il, attended a performance of the national orchestra along with his son and designated successor, Kim Jong Eun. The report did not say when the concert took place.

The news service released photos showing the ruler and his son with Kim Myong-guk, a four-star general who is chief of the North Korean People's Army general staff. Analysts in South Korea said the photo may have been meant as a signal that the Pyongyang leadership remains united - and that the elder Kim himself may have ordered the attack.

Analysts said the photos were taken close to several islands with artillery batteries, and surmised that Kim Jong Il may have been visiting the site where the attack on Yeonpyeong was launched.

On Sunday, China called for an emergency meeting of delegates to the long-disbanded six-party talks, which include the United States, North and South Korea, China, Japan and Russia. But South Korean officials said they told the Chinese privately that they were not interested in talks at the moment, and some expressed surprise that China made the announcement publicly.

"There was a mention by the Chinese side about the six-party talks, but it was not discussed seriously," Hong Sang-pyo, South Korea's presidential spokesman, was quoted telling reporters. He said Lee told Dai in the meeting that "it is not an appropriate time" for negotiations.

The United States also has dismissed the idea of talks now. Mullen, speaking Sunday on CNN, said, "I am one who believes we shouldn't be rewarding bad behavior here."

Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), speaking on a separate CNN show, singled out China for not doing more. "The key to this, obviously, is China," he said. "And unfortunately, China is not behaving as a responsible world power."

China "could bring the North Korean economy to its knees if they wanted to," McCain said. "And I cannot believe that the Chinese should, in a mature fashion, not find it in their interest to restrain North Korea. So far, they are not."

McCain also said that North Korea is "a very unstable regime" and called for regime change, but stressed that he meant by peaceful means.

Special correspondent Yoonjung Seo in Seoul contributed to this report.

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