North Korea warned yesterday of a “holy war” against the South using its nuclear deterrent as South Korean President Lee Myung-bak vowed a “merciless counterattack” if the South’s territory is attacked again.
Both sides were raising the rhetoric on a day South Korea launched major land and sea military exercises, prompting North Korea to denounce its neighbor as a warmonger.
“To counter the enemy’s intentional drive to push the situation to the brink of war, our revolutionary forces are making preparations to begin a holy war at any moment necessary, based on nuclear deterrent,” KCNA news agency quoted North Korean Minister of Armed Forces Kim Yong-chun as saying at a rally in Pyongyang.
North Korea regularly threatens to destroy the South and its major ally, the US, and has wielded the threat of its nuclear deterrent before, despite analysts saying it has no way to launch a nuclear device.
Lee said on a tour of a South Korean forward army base overlooking North Korean territory that the South would not relax its readiness to counter any aggression by the North.
“We had believed patience would ensure peace on this land, but that was not the case,” said Lee, who has been criticized for perceived earlier weakness to North Korean attacks.
South Korea held a major land drill in the Pocheon region, between Seoul and the heavily armed demilitarized zone separating the two Koreas. It also continued naval live-fire exercises 100km south of the maritime border with North Korea.
The drill involves a larger scale of firepower and personnel than usual for an exercise at the army training ground, a further indication that Lee wants to show the public his government can stand up to the North.
A large contingent of mechanized units operating tanks, three dozen self-propelled artillery, fighter jets and multiple rocket launchers took part in the live-fire drill just kilometers from the border. It lasted just under an hour.
Lee has replaced his top defense officials with more hawkish military men, a response to criticism of his response to hostile acts from the North, including an attack on a ship in March and the shelling of Yeonpyeong island last month.
“[South Korea] is trying to hide the provocative nature toward the North of the war exercises,” KCNA said earlier in a comment, calling the drills “madcap” and “offensive” and referring to the South Korean military as “puppet warmongers,” an insult it frequently deploys.
The South Korean army is making no secret that the drill is aimed at displaying its firepower to its neighbor.
“We are facing a crisis because of North Korea, so I came to see this air and ground operation. I want to feel and see the level of South Korea’s armed forces,” said Kim Tae-dong, a 70-year-old Internet businessman. “Another North Korean provocation will happen. We should prepare our military perfectly for that.”
Seoul’s financial markets closed flat, with investors shrugging off the tension. Pyongyang’s threatening remarks have in the past failed to have a lasting effect.
Analysts say the North is unlikely, in the near-term at least, to launch a further attack.
For now, the North is likely to wait and see if its latest actions, including an offer to readmit international nuclear inspectors, yield results, such as a return to international talks on its nuclear program.