South Korea considers military response to Nork attack


The divided Korean peninsula appeared to be teetering on the brink of all-out war yesterday after the North fired dozens of shells across the border during military drills by the South. Two South Korean soldiers were killed and 16 other people were reportedly injured.

The artillery bombardment – one of the heaviest since the Korean War ended without a peace treaty in 1953 – left parts of Yeonpyeong island in the Yellow Sea, north-west of the capital Seoul, in smoking ruins.

President Lee Myung-bak put the South's military on its highest alert and called the shelling a "completely unforgivable" attack on civilians. Last night he appeared to be formulating a response that could include military strikes. "I think enormous retaliation is going to be necessary to make North Korea incapable of provoking us again," he told Yonhap news agency. Mr Lee insisted that an attack on a village of farmers and fishermen, accustomed to living in peace with the certainty that South Korean forces patrolling the waters around them would ensure their survival, could not go unanswered.

The attacks called for "a response beyond the rule of engagement", he said. As political pressure mounted for a return strike, he added: "Our military should show this through action rather than an administrative response."

In Seoul, fearful members of the public crowded around television sets showing black plumes of smoke rising from the island's village. The overriding question, as expressed by office worker Lee Yong-suk, was whether the flare-up would spread into a much wider confrontation in which North Korean gunners could intimidate the huge populace around Seoul and the nearby west coast port of Incheon.

"People are shocked," she said. "People are dying. It's a kind of war."

South Korea's defence ministry claimed that dozens of homes were hit in the hour-long attack, apparently targeted at a military base, and that the South Korean military fired back about 80 shells before the two sides returned to an uneasy stand-off. Local television said many of the island's 1,300 people have fled. "The administration and military must deal with North Korea's brutality using whatever means necessary," said An Young Hwan, a spokesperson for the ruling Grand National Party.

Pyongyang claimed the South fired first and threatened a "merciless" response. In a statement aired on the state-run KCNA news agency, the North's military said the South had "recklessly provoked" yesterday's exchange by firing "dozens of shells" inside its territorial waters during military exercises, "despite repeated warnings".

Was the North Korean concern for the water itself or some fish it was defending? While the Nork response suggest something many have already concluded, that the place is ruled by a bunch of nuts, having to deal with the crazy many next door is no simple matter.

The South is much more vulnerable to attacks on its population and it is pretty clear the North has no inhibitions about killing non combatants. However it remains to be seen how much longer a patient response is politically possible in the South. The South does have better weapons and troops although the North tries to make up for both deficiencies with quantity.


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