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South Korea’s New Defense Chief Threatens Air Strikes on North

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Gen. Kim Kwan-Jin
“I will mobilize all combat capabilities available to severely punish the enemy,” Kim Kwan Jin, former chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said today at a confirmation hearing. Photographer: Lee Jin-Man/AFP/Getty Images

Dec. 3 (Bloomberg) -- South Korea’s new defense minister vowed retaliation that would include airstrikes if North Korea makes another attack following last month’s deadly artillery bombardment.

“I will mobilize all combat capabilities available to severely punish the enemy,” Kim Kwan Jin, former chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said today at a confirmation hearing. “I will surely use planes. This is a matter of self-defense.”

South Korean President Lee Myung Bak on Nov. 29 apologized for what he called the military’s weak response to North Korea’s Nov. 23 shelling of Yeonpyeong island, which killed two soldiers and two civilians. South Korea’s military is preparing to carry out the first live-fire artillery drills since the shelling along its disputed western sea border with North Korea.

North Korea attacked the fishing community and military outpost of Yeonpyeong in the first shelling of South Korean soil since the 1950-1953 war. North Korea said it was responding to a military provocation after the South fired into waters it claims as its own.

“The latest tough talk seemed to be mostly aimed at deterring North Korea from further provocations,” said Kim Yong Hyun, a professor of North Korean studies at Dongguk University in Seoul. “There is only so much South Korea can do in terms of tough actions when there’s little assurance of how far North Korea will go.”

Defense chief-nominee Kim said today it isn’t likely that North Korea would start a full-scale war, given its weak economy and uncertainties about leader Kim Jong Il’s planned transfer of power to his youngest son, Kim Jong Un. Kim was named on Nov. 26 to replace Defense Minister Kim Tae Young, who quit amid criticism that the military’s response to the shelling was inadequate.

Shipping Warning

South Korea warned ships to avoid 29 areas around its coast starting Dec. 6 as more than 40,000 Japanese and U.S. troops began joint exercises today. One zone lies about 7 miles (11 kilometers) off Daecheong island, in waters claimed by the North that are about 100 miles (160 kilometers) from the South Korean mainland.

South Korea hasn’t decided when it will next hold artillery exercises on Yeonpyeong, said a spokesman for the Joint Chiefs of Staff who declined to be identified, citing military policy. The National Intelligence Service believes North Korea may launch another attack on the South, Grand National Party lawmaker Rhee Beum Kwan said, citing testimony to parliament this week by the spy-agency’s director, Won Sei-Hoon.

Kim said today he will consider whether to reinstate North Korea as the country’s “main enemy” in the military guidelines, a term dropped in 2004 under the so-called “Sunshine Policy” of engagement with North Korea.

‘Main Enemy’

“There is no doubt North Korea’s leadership and military are our main enemy,” Kim said. “The enemy will attempt more provocations. I will make sure the enemy doesn’t even dare to think about it.”

North Korea has more than 5,200 multiple rocket launchers, 100 more than previously estimated, bolstering its capability to attack South Korea’s capital, Yonhap News reported today, citing a South Korean government official it didn’t identify. North Korea has also increased the number of tanks and boosted its capability to intercept planes, Yonhap said.

Fresh from maneuvers in the Yellow Sea with South Korea’s navy, the aircraft carrier USS George Washington will join a force of about 400 aircraft and 60 warships in the Japanese-U.S. exercises today. Drills will include responding to ballistic missile attacks on unspecified Pacific islands, the Joint Staff of the Japan Self-Defense Forces said in a statement.

China Critical

While the exercises were planned more than a year ago, they are the latest show of deterrence following North Korea’s shelling of Yeonpyeong. China criticized the drills as an obstacle to easing tensions on the peninsula that have been ratcheting higher since the March sinking of the South Korean warship Cheonan. An international panel blamed the incident on a North Korean torpedo, which Kim Jong Il’s regime has denied.

South Korea’s drills starting Dec. 6 will include live firing from navy ships into the sea near Daecheong island, said the spokesman for the Joint Chiefs of Staff. The area lies to the southwest of the island, in the opposite direction to the North Korean coastline, he said.

The army and air force will be involved in drills in some of the areas around South Korea where regular live-fire practice is planned, said the spokesman.

The drills come after a survey showed more than 80 percent of South Koreans believed their government should have displayed a “stronger military response” to the attack on Yeonpyeong. The Nov. 27 poll by the Seoul-based Asan Institute for Policy Studies surveyed 1,000 people aged 19 or older by telephone and had a margin of error of 3.1 percentage points.

‘Step Up’

“I am responsible for not having been able to protect the lives and property of the people,” Lee said in a national address on Nov. 29. “I understand very well that you were greatly disappointed with how we responded to the shelling.”

Japan and the U.S. have joined South Korea in condemning the North Korean attack, rejecting China’s call for talks with the North and calling on the government in Beijing to do more to rein in its ally.

China has “much influence and therefore much responsibility,” Admiral Michael Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said at a forum of the Center for American Progress in Washington Dec. 1. “We need China to step up.”

Chinese opposition has stalled United Nations Security Council negotiations condemning the shelling and North Korea’s expanding nuclear program. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton will host Japan’s Foreign Minister Seiji Maehara and South Korean Foreign Minister Kim Sung Hwan on Dec. 6 to discuss regional security.

Closer Ties

North Korea last week confirmed it has a uranium-enrichment facility with thousands of centrifuges, which it said was intended for civilian use. The country is under UN sanctions because of previous atomic tests and concerns it is developing nuclear weapons.

China’s ties with North Korea “have witnessed significant progress this year,” Wu Bangguo, a member of the nine-member standing committee of China’s Politburo, said in Beijing, according to a statement posted on the website of the Communist Party yesterday. Wu pledged to strengthen those links in his third meeting this year with Choe Tae Bok, a key aide to North Korean leader Kim Jong Il.

Choe’s talks in Beijing touched on areas of mutual concern and took place in a friendly atmosphere, state-run Korea Central News Agency reported yesterday, without providing details.

Emergency Talks

The week-long exercise has no link to any “existing or perceived political or geographical situation nor is it directed at any nation,” U.S. Lt. Colonel Kenneth Hoffman, an Air Force spokesman, said in an e-mailed message.

China on Nov. 28 proposed “emergency consultations” with negotiators from the two Koreas, Japan, Russia and the U.S. to defuse tensions. Negotiations among the six countries aimed at getting North Korea to abandon its nuclear program have been stalled since April 2009.

“Brandishing of force cannot solve the issue,” Chinese Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Jiang Yu said at a regular briefing yesterday. “Some are playing with knives and guns while China is criticized for calling for dialogue, is that fair?”

To contact the reporters on this story: Saeromi Shin in Seoul at sshin15@bloomberg.net; Jungmin Hong in Seoul at jhong47@bloomberg.net.

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Bill Austin at billaustin@bloomberg.net

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