South Korea’s President on Monday took responsibility for failing to protect his citizens from a deadly North Korean artillery attack last week, vowing tough consequences for any future aggression and expressing outrage over the “ruthlessness of the North Korean regime.”
Lee Myung-bak’s short speech to the country came as a nuclear-powered U.S. supercarrier and a South Korean destroyer participated in joint military exercises, a united show of force nearly a week after an artillery barrage on Yeonpyeong island killed four, including two civilians.
Amid the heightened tension, classified U.S. State Department documents leaked on Sunday by online whistle-blower WikiLeaks showed the United States and South Korea discussing possible scenarios for reunification of the peninsula, and American worry over Pyongyang’s nuclear weapons programme.
Under pressure to take stronger action in dealing with the defiant North, Mr. Lee lashed out at Pyongyang.
“Only a few meters away from where shells landed, there is a school where classes were going on,” Mr. Lee said. “I am outraged by the ruthlessness of the North Korean regime, which is even indifferent to the lives of little children.”
Mr. Lee has come under withering criticism for what opponents have called lapses in South Korea’s response to the attack. Mr. Lee has replaced his defence minister, ordered reinforcements for the 4,000 troops on Yeonpyeong and four other Yellow Sea islands and upgraded rules of engagement.
“If the North commits any additional provocations against the South, we will make sure that it pays a dear price without fail,” Mr. Lee said. “The South Korean people now unequivocally understand that prolonged endurance and tolerance will spawn nothing but more serious provocations.”
He didn’t offer specifics about what consequences the North would face, and he offered few details on what actions South Korea will take in response to last week’s attack, other than promising to strengthen the military.
“I feel deeply responsible for failing to protect my people’s lives and property,” Mr. Lee said. In South Korea, it is not rare for top officials to resign, apologise or express responsibility when their government faces public criticism.
Minutes after Mr. Lee finished his speech, North Korea issued a fresh threat to attack South Korea and the United States, calling the allies’ joint war drills “yet another grave military provocation.”
The manoeuvres are an “intentional plot” by the United States and South Korea to prepare for war against North Korea, Pyongyang’s main Rodong Sinmun newspaper said in a commentary.
The North will launch counter attacks without hesitation on South Korea and U.S. forces if they engage in provocation again, according to the commentary carried by the official Korean Central News Agency.
A South Korean county has designated a front—line island hit by North Korean artillery attacks as “off—limits” to civilians. The decision could pave the way for the evacuation of Yeonpyeong island.
Ongjin County spokesman Lim Byung—chan says the designation was issued on Monday at the request of South Korea’s military.
South Korea’s Defence Ministry says it will discuss whether to evacuate about 300 remaining residents, journalists and officials from the island.
Yeonpyeong island is just 7 miles (11 kilometres) from the North Korean mainland. Four South Koreans were killed when the island was hit by artillery last week.
Keywords: Korean crisis