South Korea on Tuesday braced for a surprise attack from North Korea following this week’s provocative live-fire drills in disputed Yellow Sea waters, while officials in Seoul expressed a new resolve to counter northern aggression with decisive action.
Two days after conducting an exercise similar to a November drill that triggered a North Korean artillery attack that killed four people on remote Yeonpyeong island, South Korea kept fighter jets and a destroyer in the region to monitor the north’s military.
North Korea considers the waters around the island its territory and had threatened swift retaliation if the south carried out the most recent drills. But so far, Pyongyang has failed to carry through on its threats.
That restraint was praised Tuesday by New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson as he left North Korea following four days of unofficial diplomatic negotiations. Richardson praised the north’s “statesmanlike” response.
“They have shown, I believe, a step in the right direction,” Richardson told reporters in Beijing.
Meanwhile, Seoul on Tuesday indicated a new desire to face down North Korean threats and attacks, which include the alleged March torpedoing of a southern warship that killed 46 crewmen.
Facing growing criticism for his military’s lackluster response to last month’s attack as well as the springtime sinking of the Cheonan, South Korean President Lee Myung-bak met with his top security advisors on Tuesday. The Lee administration has threatened airstrikes if attacked again and has ordered more troops on the nation’s five front-line islands, many of which are located within sight of North Korea.
“When it provokes, we will firmly punish North Korea,” Defense Minister Kim Kwan-jin told South Korean lawmakers Tuesday. “The army will make a strong response to all provocations.”
Critics say South Korea should reopen dialogue with the north, not ramp up tensions.
“A government’s mission should not be one on course for war, but for peace,” said South Korean lawmaker Chung Dong-young. “If we really want to prevent war, we need courage to engage in dialogue. While in dialogue, there would be no sound of gunfire.”
Analysts said Pyongyang wisely backed down this week in the face of South Korean firepower. “Pyongyang probably realized that it would lose more than gain from further provocation,” said Cheong Seong-chang, an expert on inter-Korean relations at Sejong Institute near Seoul.
But South Korean officials insist that its lack of a response to their military drills did not mean the repressive regime was backing down.
The north has deployed SA-2 ground-to-air missiles and ground-to-ship missiles and is poised to fire artillery, Seoul’s Yonhap news agency reported, citing an unidentified military official.
Still, North Korea offered a conciliatory gesture this week when it suggested a willingness to allow international inspectors to visit nuclear facilities for the first time since 2009, according to a CNN report.
On Tuesday, the Chinese Foreign Ministry told reporters Pyongyang should accept the return of International Atomic Energy Agency inspectors into the country to ensure it was not processing uranium to highly enriched levels.
In Washington, however, the response was lukewarm. “North Korea talks a great game. They always do,” U.S. State Department spokesman P.J. Crowley told reporters. “The real issue is what will they do.”
Richardson told reporters that North Korea was close to returning to the six-party talks aimed at persuading Kim Jong-il to abandon its nuclear ambitions. “Maybe now is the time for the six-party countries to reach out to North Korea and say, ‘OK, let’s get down to business,’” he told CNN.
After an emergency meeting Sunday, the U.N. Security Council remained deadlocked in its attempts to ease tensions on the Korean peninsula, with China refusing to condemn North Korea for causing provocations in the region.
But Seoul is taking its own steps. Officials have cut food and financial aid to the north and may use loudspeakers along the heavily guarded demilitarized zone between the two Koreas to broadcast propaganda to northern residents.
On Tuesday, Seoul sent a more subtle but nonetheless determined message: After years of refraining from a practice that had irked the north, officials planned to light up a 100-foot-tall steel Christmas tree that will be visible to North Koreans living near the DMZ.
Ethan Kim in the Times’ Seoul Bureau contributed to this report.