South Korea modifies defenses and changes rules of engagement after attack

Newsis, via Reuters

A South Korean Marine officer stood in front of a military facility on Thursday that had been hit by a shell fired by North Korea on Yeonpyeong island.

 November 25, 2010

SEOUL, South Korea — Responding to growing public criticism after a deadly North Korean attack, President Lee Myung-bak accepted the resignation of his defense minister on Thursday and announced changes in the military’s rules of engagement to make it easier for South Korea to strike back with greater force, especially if civilians are threatened.

The government also announced plans to increase the number of troops and heavy weapons on Yeonpyeong Island, where two marines and two civilians died Tuesday in an artillery fusillade from the North. On Friday, President Lee initially put forward a security adviser, Lee Hee-won, as the new defense minister. But the government later pulled back on that announcement.

But Mr. Lee, who came to office two years ago vowing to get tough with the North, has little maneuvering room in formulating a response. While the attack appears to have pushed anti-North Korean sentiment here to its highest level in years, there is little public support for taking military action against the North that might lead to an escalation of hostilities.

“North Korea has nothing to lose, while we have everything to lose,” said Kang Won-taek, a professor of politics at Seoul National University. “Lee Myung-bak has no choice but to soften his tone to keep this country peaceful. It is not an appealing choice, but it is the only realistic choice.”

The South’s powerful neighbor is also counseling restraint. The Chinese prime minister, Wen Jiabao, said Thursday that Beijing opposed any provocative military behavior by either side on the Korean Peninsula, Xinhua, the state news agency, reported.

On Thursday, while North Korea warned through its official news agency of further military retaliation if provoked by South Korea, Mr. Lee said only, “We should not drop our guard in preparation for the possibility of another provocation by North Korea,” according to his chief spokesman, Hong Sang-pyo. “A provocation like this can recur any time.”

The changes in the rules of engagement were similarly restrained. South Korean defenses on five coastal islands in the Yellow Sea had been set up primarily to guard against possible amphibious landings by North Korean troops. Critics said Thursday that the military had not anticipated the possibility of an attack by North Korean artillery batteries, which are reportedly in caves along the North’s coastline.

“Now, an artillery battle has become the new threat, so we’re reassessing the need to strengthen defenses,” Mr. Lee told lawmakers. The new measures he outlined included doubling the number of howitzers and upgrading other weaponry.

The new rules of engagement will be based on whether military or civilian sites are the targets, said Mr. Hong, the presidential spokesman, adding that the move was made to “change the paradigm of responding to North Korea’s provocations.”

Previously, South Korean forces were allowed to respond only in kind — if the North fired artillery, the South could answer only with artillery — to contain any dispute. Now, officials said, the military would be allowed to use greater force.

Mr. Lee’s response to this week’s artillery attack is not the first time he has been criticized for sitting on his hands in the face of a deadly provocation by the North. Two years ago, when a South Korean tourist was shot by a sentry at a North Korean mountain resort, his government’s response amounted to a slap on the wrist: suspending tours to the resort and banning South Korean civic groups from visiting the North.

But the clearest case was Mr. Lee’s response in March to the sinking of a South Korean warship, the Cheonan.

Mr. Lee at first seemed to stall by waiting for the results of an international investigation, which took two months to conclude that the ship had been sunk by a North Korean torpedo. When he responded, it was with relatively mild measures like reducing the South’s already minuscule trade with the North, resuming the South’s cold-war-era propaganda speakers along the demilitarized zone and demanding an apology. But the speakers have yet to be turned on after North Korea threatened to shoot at them, and Mr. Lee dropped the apology demand as a condition for talks.

Mr. Lee was widely blamed in South Korea for having provoked the Cheonan episode by ending unconditional aid to the North at the start of his presidency.

“Before, the public saw him as too hard, and now they see him as too soft,” said Yoo Ho-yeol, a professor of North Korean studies at Korea University in Seoul.

Despite public pressure to do more, Mr. Lee does not have many options for less lethal forms of pressure on the North, diplomatic or economic. North Korea has weathered years of economic sanctions and diplomatic isolation. In fact, the tough economic conditions appear only to give the North motivation to continue its brinkmanship, to extract aid as it faces a winter of food and fuel shortages.

Some analysts say the North is also using the provocations to burnish the military credentials of Kim Jong-un, the youngest son of the North’s leader, Kim Jong-il, and his heir apparent.

Analysts say making sanctions effective would require greater support from China, North Korea’s traditional protector, which has so far been reluctant to tighten the screws on the North. In recent days, Mr. Lee and President Obama have agreed to make new appeals to Chinese leaders to put more pressure on the North, but analysts say they are not optimistic that the Chinese will comply.

Still, South Korean officials said they would urge China to act more responsibly by pressing the North to refrain from further attacks. They also said they would ask Beijing to more closely monitor trade with North Korea by Chinese merchants, which they said has been a way for the North to bypass international economic sanctions.

Mr. Lee and his advisers appear to have concluded that a less confrontational stance is the only way to persuade North Korea to end its provocations. A few analysts speculated that Mr. Lee might eventually end up not far from his liberal predecessors like former President Roh Moo-hyun, who used economic aid to appease the North and reduce tensions on the peninsula.

“Anyone would conclude that the peaceful approach is best to reverse the situation,” said Moon Jung-in, a former adviser in the Roh administration. “A hard-line approach is not a real option.”


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