A destroyer prowled the sea and fighter jets screamed across the skies yesterday as South Korea braced for possible North Korean surprise attacks a day after launching provocative artillery drills on an island the North shelled last month.
North Korea has so far backed off from threats to strike the South again for the live-fire military drills on Yeonpyeong Island.
Pyongyang considers the waters around the island its territory, and similar drills last month triggered a North Korean artillery barrage that killed four South Koreans, including two construction workers.
Top officials defended Seoul’s decision to carry out more drills despite calls in some quarters for restraint amid fears of all-out war, and said the South’s military was prepared for any future North Korean aggression.
South Korean President Lee Myung-bak, in the wake of intense criticism over his handling of last month’s attack, gathered his national security advisers for strategic talks yesterday. Accused of acting too slowly and too weakly last month, his government has threatened air strikes if hit again and ordered more troops on front-line islands.
Seoul’s decision to push ahead with the routine drills in the face of North Korean threats of nuclear war and pressure from China and Russia indicate a new willingness by Lee’s government to use provocations of its own to counter North Korean aggression. Seoul has already cut aid to the impoverished North and refused to participate in money making joint tourism projects in North Korea.
“When it provokes, we will firmly punish North Korea,” South Korean Defense Minister Kim Kwan-jin told lawmakers before leaving for the security meeting.
Kim acknowledged facing pressure to cancel the drills, but added that our leaders “relieved our people’s anxiety about security and created a sense of unity with firm and consistent military measures.”
A senior South Korean government official said yesterday that the lack of response so far does not mean Pyongyang is backing down, noting that North Korea thrives on “surprise” attacks. The official spoke on condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the matter.
Troops were also on alert at the border amid plans yesterday to light up a 30m tall steel Christmas tree that would be visible to North Koreans living near the Demilitarized Zone dividing the two Koreas.
South Korea had stopped the longtime practice of lighting the huge Christmas tree years ago when it halted routine propaganda campaigns during a period of warming ties.