(HN, November 23, 2010) -- President Lee Myung-bak ordered his military Tuesday to punish North Korea for its artillery attacks "through action," not just words, saying it is important to stop the communist regime from contemplating additional provocation.
"The provocation this time can be regarded as an invasion of South Korean territory. In particular, indiscriminate attacks on civilians are a grave matter," a stern-faced Lee said during a visit to the headquarters of the Joint Chiefs of Staff in central Seoul, according to South Korea’s news agency Yonhap.
North Korea fired some 100 coastline artillery rounds across the western sea border onto Yeonpyeong Island Tuesday afternoon, killing two marines and wounding more than a dozen others.
The attack set houses on fire on the island that lies just south of the Northern Limit Line, the de-facto maritime border between the two Koreas drawn at the end of their 1950-53 war.
The South Korean military launched an immediate counterattack, firing about 80 K-9 self-propelled artillery shells toward the North's coastal areas. The exchange of fire lasted for about an hour.
Tuesday's attack was the North's most serious provocation since it torpedoed a South Korean warship in March that killed 46 sailors. It marks the first direct artillery attack on South Korean territory since the Korean War ended in an armistice, not a formal peace treaty.
"Reckless attacks on South Korean civilians are not tolerable, especially when South Korea is providing North Korea with humanitarian aid," the president said. "As for such attacks on civilians, a response beyond the rule of engagement is necessary. Our military should show this through action rather than an administrative response" such as statements or talks, he added.
"Given that North Korea maintains an offensive posture, I think the Army, the Navy and the Air Force should unite and retaliate against (the North's) provocation with multiple-fold firepower," Lee said. "I think enormous retaliation is going to be necessary to make North Korea incapable of provoking us again."
Lee's strongly worded comments came after a series of emergency meetings with senior presidential aides and security-related ministers at the underground bunker of the presidential compound Cheong Wa Dae. Participants included Foreign Minister Kim Sung-hwan, Unification Minister Hyun In-taek, Defense Minister Kim Tae-young, Home Affairs Minister Maeng Hyung-kyu and Won Sei-hoon, chief of the state spy agency.
Earlier in the day, Cheong Wa Dae issued a statement denouncing the North's latest provocation.
"North Korea will have to bear full responsibility" for all consequences, Hong Sang-pyo, senior secretary for public affairs at the presidential office Cheong Wa Dae, said. He also warned that the South will"resolutely retaliate" if the North makes any further provocations.
Hong said the government was trying to figure out the North's intentions, adding it regards the attack as a "localized situation," rather than a prelude to a full-scale war
"We have informed our allies and neighboring countries of the current situation through diplomatic channels," he said.
He dismissed rumors of North Korean leader Kim Jong-il's death as groundless. "We concluded that it is not a meaningful rumor or intelligence," he said.
Also in North Asia, Japan has been placed on high alert and officials in Tokyo demanded a quick resolution.
"The latest act of provocation undermines the peace and security of the entire northeast Asian region including Japan, not just those of South Korea," Japanese chief cabinet secretary Yoshito Sengoku said at a news conference, as he called the attack an "unforgivable act." "We demand an immediate end to this kind of action," he said.
(In early trading Wednesday in Japan, the Nikkei index in Tokyo was down about two percent and has fallen below the 10,000 yen level).
Separately, Asia Society Executive Vice-President Jamie Metzl, who just returned from South Korea, called the attack "a shocking escalation" by Pyongyang.
"With the North Korean economy in free fall, the country’s leaders have likely concluded that attacks like this only increase their negotiating power," says Metzl. "The North Koreans may well have recognized that South Korea has far more to lose from any conflict than does the north, and that concessions can possibly be extracted by taking advantage of this disparity."
Referring to the latest attack, as well as recent provocations, Metlz said: "These events could very well also point to conflicts within the North Korea establishment as different factions vie for power during a time of transition."
In a separate press briefing, Cheong Wa Dae spokeswoman Kim Hee-jung quoted the president as telling his military to strike North Korea's missile base around its coastline artillery positions if necessary.
"President Lee instructed (the military) to strike North Korea's missile base near coastline artillery positions if necessary... if there in any indication of further provocation," she said.
The spokeswoman also said that the North's provocation might have come in retaliation for one of the South's annual military exercises.
"Our Navy was conducting a maritime exercise near the western sea border today. North Korea has sent a letter of protest over the drill. We're examining a possible link between the protest and the artillery attack," said Kim.
Foreign ministry officials said they were in consultations with the United Nations over whether to refer the case to the global organization.
South Korea's rival political parties, meanwhile, canceled a budget committee meeting and agreed on bipartisan support for the government's response to the incident.
This is not the first time a conflict of this nature has occurred between North and South Korea. In fact conflict has been brewing on the Korean Peninsula for 60 years now since, after World War II, the Korean peninsula was divided, with the North falling under the Soviet Union and the South under US military administration.
In June 1950 the North and South went to war. An armistice was signed in July 1953, enforcing the divide along the 38th parallel. No peace deal has been signed.
North Korea remains a Communist state and is a military power, though poverty-stricken. South Korea has become a major global economic player and hosted the last G20 summit in its capital Seoul earlier this month.
Some key events, beginning with the most recent, in conflict between the two Koreas are as follows:
November 23, 2010: Two South Korean soldiers die as North, South Korea trade artillery fire
November 2010: North Korea unveils previously secret uranium nuclear facility
September 2010: North Korean leader Kim Jong il makes son, Kim Jong Un, four-star general, in move seen as preparation for succession.
March 2010: Cheonan, a South Korean warship with 104 men on board, is sunk by an explosion in the Yellow Sea. North Korea is blamed for the death of 46 sailors, but Pyongyang denies responsibility.
November 2009: North and South Korean warships clash in the Yellow Sea.
May 2009: North Korea conducts its second nuclear test
October 2006: North Korea conducts first nuclear test
June 2002: Naval battles kill five South Korean soldiers. Most likely 30 North Korean are killed or injured.
June 1999: First naval skirmish between two countries since the war. North Korean ship sinks in Yellow Sea.
September 1996: Gangneung submarine incident - 24 North Korean sailors die in the incident, which is believed to have been an attempt at infiltrating the south.
November 1987: Korean Airlines flight explodes, killing 115 people. North Korea blamed for attack.
January 1968: First assassination attempt on South Korea leader Park Chung-Hee. Other efforts to target top Seoul officials, some successful, follow in years to come.
HUM News Staff - Yonhap News Agency