South Korea’s new defence minister took office on Saturday and vowed a strong military response that would force rival North Korea to surrender if it attacks the South again.
Kim Kwan-jin’s predecessor resigned amid criticism that the government responded weakly to a November 23 North Korean artillery barrage on a South Korean island near their disputed western sea border that killed two South Korean marines and two civilians.
During a confirmation hearing on Friday, Mr. Kim warned that South Korea would launch air strikes on the communist North if it stages another attack.
“If North Korea carries out a military provocation on our territory and people again, we must retaliate immediately and strongly until they completely surrender,” Mr. Kim said in a speech on Saturday to senior military officials.
Mr. Kim also called for military readiness, saying North Korea would plot new provocations. He later visited the island targeted by the North Korean attack and vowed to take strong measures to ensure North Korea would not dare to make more provocations. He said the military would quickly hold firing drills if the weather permits, according to the Yonhap news agency.
Skirmishes occur periodically along the two Koreas’ disputed maritime border, but the latest assault was the first since the 1950-53 Korean War to target a civilian area.
The attack came eight months after an alleged North Korean torpedo strike on a South Korean warship killed 46 sailors. North Korea has denied involvement.
Critics have questioned President Lee Myung-bak’s willingness to stand up militarily to the North, despite his tough stance of refusing to coddle the reclusive regime since taking office nearly three years ago.
Mr. Lee must balance calls for a harsh response with the knowledge that Seoul, a city of more than 10 million people, is only 30 miles (50 kilometers) from the heavily militarized border and within easy range of North Korean artillery.
On Friday, the U.S. Senate approved a resolution condemning the North Korean attack and urging the North to halt all nuclear activities and refrain from any further actions that may destabilize the Korean peninsula.
“This brazen attack is one in a series of actions by the government of North Korea that undermine regional peace and security, especially on the Korean peninsula,” the resolution said.
Also on Friday, U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton said she will meet with her South Korean and Japanese counterparts on Monday in Washington “to review the approach we should be taking” toward North Korea.
“What we object to is a pursuit of nuclear weapons that can be used to threaten and intimidate their neighbours and beyond,” Ms. Clinton said in Bahrain. “That is unacceptable, and it is destabilizing.”
Ms. Clinton will hold separate meetings with the South Korean and Japanese foreign ministers on Monday before the three meet together later in the day, State Department spokesman P.J. Crowley said.
After quitting the six-nation talks in April 2009, North Korea has shown it is eager to restart them to gain much-needed fuel oil and aid in exchange for nuclear disarmament. However, North Korea’s recent revelation that it has developed a large uranium enrichment facility, giving it a new method for making material for bombs, has further called into question its intent to disarm.