Lee Warns on S. Korea Riposte to Any North Provocation

South Korea's President Lee Myung Bak
South Korea's President Lee Myung Bak. Photographer: Kim Byung Yeon/Pool via Bloomberg

South Korean President Lee Myung Bak said his government has put North Korea on notice that it will issue a swift and powerful retaliation to any military provocation, and urged the totalitarian state to adopt Myanmar’s example of political opening.

“It is now our government’s clear policy to respond strongly and immediately in times of military provocation,” Lee, 70, said yesterday during a discussion with journalists at his office in the Blue House in Seoul. “This policy has been officially communicated to North Korea through China.”

South Korea, along with the U.S. and Japan, has voiced concern that North Korean dictator Kim Jong Un may undertake a nuclear test to reassert his power after a long-range rocket test in April failed and cost the impoverished nation a U.S. food aid deal. Lee’s comments also underscore the importance of China, North Korea’s biggest trade partner, as the main channel of communication with the isolated regime.

North Korea, which denied on June 9 it was planning to test a nuclear weapon “at present,” has repeatedly threatened to attack Lee’s government in the six months since Kim succeeded his late father Kim Jong Il, who died in December. Lee said yesterday that the hostile rhetoric from the North, which included an April 24 threat to turn him and his government into “ashes in three or four minutes,” was meant for internal consumption.

’Seeking Stability’

“The Kim Jong Un regime, on the surface, is seeking stability,” Lee said. “It is at present difficult to say whether they will be successful. The only path for North Korea is to denuclearize and open up like Myanmar and join the international community.”

Myanmar President Thein Sein has won praise from world leaders after freeing political prisoners, easing media restrictions and convincing opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi to stand for parliament since taking power 14 months ago. His party’s election win in 2010, while criticized by western nations at the time, ended about five decades of direct military control.

North Korea is dependent on energy and food assistance from China, which has tried to support its neighbor to avoid unrest that could hinder trade and prompt a wave of refugees across its border. North Korea’s foreign trade grew 51 percent in 2011 to a 22-year high of $6.3 billion as the country boosted mineral exports to China, South Korea’s state-run trade agency said on June 1.

Nuclear Test

“By specifying that the official communication was made via Beijing, Lee is trying to show that he is making use of the perceived gravitas Beijing seems to exude to Pyongyang,” said Park Young Ho, senior research fellow at the state-run Korea Institute for National Unification in Seoul.

In denying it was planning a nuclear test, the government in Pyongyang said June 9 that Lee’s administration was trying to “rattle the nerves of the DPRK in a bid to cause it to conduct a nuclear test,” according to a statement carried on the official Korean Central News Agency. DPRK stands for the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, the North’s official name.

A South Korean intelligence report obtained by Bloomberg News on April 9 said satellite photographs of the Punggye-ri nuclear test site near North Korea’s border with Russia and China showed excavation consistent with preparations for an underground atomic device detonation.

Rolling Back ’Sunshine’

Tensions on the Korean peninsula rose after the North’s shelling of Yeonpyeong Island in November 2010 killed four people, and an international panel found North Korea guilty of torpedoing the Cheonan, a South Korean warship, in March 2010, killing 46 sailors.

Lee’s stance toward North Korea contrasts with the so-called “Sunshine Policy” of engagement followed by his predecessor. He has less than eight months left of his single five-year term and an election to choose the next president will be held on Dec. 19.

His popularity stands at 29.9 percent, according to a Realmeter poll taken June 4-8. The survey of 3,000 people had a margin of error of plus or minus 1.8 percentage points.

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