S. Korea Military Focuses on Possible Border Island Conflict

South Korea’s military will focus this year on defending against possible North Korean attacks on border islands while preparing to take over wartime control of its forces from the U.S. in 2015.

“The possibility of a North Korean provocation still remains as Kim Jong Un is in the process of building his regime,” the Defense Ministry said in a report posted on President Lee Myung Bak’s website today. “Our military will pulverize the enemy’s will to attack again by sufficiently retaliating until the enemy threat, the source of the provocation and its supporting forces, are completely removed.”

Kim Jong Un became North Korea’s new leader last month after the death of his father Kim Jong Il, whose military-first policy has kept the country on combat alert since the end of the Korean War in 1953. Tensions on the Korean peninsula have risen since Lee ended a policy of engagement with the North and 50 South Koreans died in attacks in 2010.

The 680,000-strong South Korean military will increase the number of artillery on standby, and boost its air force and navy by introducing new radar and missile defense systems, the statement said.

South Korea’s defense export target for 2012 is $3 billion, up from $2.4 billion last year. Civilian management methods will be introduced to the military’s finances this year to make up for planned 1.5 trillion won ($1.3 billion) cuts in the defense budget over the next three years, the ministry said.

Impoverished but Strong

North Korea’s military is more capable now than it has ever been, said Lee Choon Kun, a senior research fellow at the Korea Economic Research Institute, a private think tank based in Seoul. The army had more than 1.02 million soldiers and more than 200,000 pieces of artillery in 2010, according to a report compiled by Lee and released a few days before Kim’s death.

“It’s a common misconception to think that North Korea has a weak military because the country is impoverished,” said Lee, who cited public data and information from governments including the U.S. and Sweden.

Disputed Sea Border

The disputed sea border between the two Koreas has sparked conflict. North Korea shelled South Korea’s Yeonpyeong Island in November 2010, killing four, and an international panel found the Kim regime guilty of torpedoing the Cheonan, a South Korean warship, in March 2010 that killed 46 sailors.

South Korea will also expand its defense domain to include cyberspace for the first time, the government’s report said without specifying how it will differ from civilian safeguards. Both the military and the government raised their cyber alert levels on Dec. 20 in response to Kim Jong Il’s death.

Kim Jong Un’s new government condemned the actions as “madcap saber-rattling” by Lee and made threats of “retaliatory fire.” Lee said Jan. 2 a new era is still possible in bilateral relations, despite the lack of change in the young Kim’s rhetoric from his father’s, if North Korea shows sincerity in shedding its nuclear program.

Preparation to take over wartime control of South Korean troops from the U.S. on Dec. 1, 2015 is 51 percent complete, the report said. The U.S. has about 28,500 troops in the country and is moving them away from the demilitarized zone on the world’s most fortified border.

Pyongyang Rally

Over 100,000 citizens rallied with ruling Workers’ Party leaders in Pyongyang’s central Kim Il Sung Square yesterday in a show of loyalty to the new leader, North Korea’s official Korea Central News Agency reported today. State television also showed footage of Kim Jong Un’s Jan. 1 tour of a tank unit today, according to South Korea’s Yonhap news agency, continuing his campaign to fortify his power base.

North Korea allocates a third of its budget as part of its military-first policy to maintain 1,700 aircraft, 800 naval vessels and more than 13,000 artillery systems, according to U.S. military. The North is estimated to have 1.2 million troops and another 7.7 million in reserve, according to South Korea’s 2010 Defense White Paper. It also has 70 submarines, including an undetermined number of Yeono-class midget subs, compared with South Korea’s 10.

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