South Korea’s Lee talks tough, North denounces drills

South Korean President Lee Myung-bak said its military should launch a “merciless counterattack” if its territory is attacked again by North Korea, as Seoul’s military held major land and sea exercises on Thursday.North Korea responded to the show of military might by denouncing its richer neighbor as a warmonger, but stopped short of threatening a retaliatory strike as tensions simmered following the North’s shelling of a southern island last month.

“We had believed patience would ensure peace on this land, but that was not the case,” Lee told troops at a forward army unit near the border.

South Korea held a major land drill in the Pocheon region, between Seoul and the heavily armed demilitarized zone (DMZ) separating the two Koreas. It also continued naval live-fire exercises 100 km (60 miles) south of the maritime border with North Korea.

The drill, involving a larger scale of firepower and personnel than usual for an exercise at the army training ground, is an indication that Lee wants to show the public Seoul 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 miles from the border with the North.

About 800 local residents and children were invited to watch the drill from bleachers set up overlooking a wide valley where the troops aimed firearms.

The display has been opened to the public on previous drills and indicates Seoul’s confidence that the North would not attempt to strike at the exercise. The drill ended just under an hour after it began and was described by a Defense Ministry official as intense.

Lee has replaced his top defense officials with more hawkish military men, a response to criticism of a perceived weak response to hostile acts from the North, including a submarine attack 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,” Pyongyang’s official KCNA news agency said 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, in Pocheon.

“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 tensions. Pyongyang’s threatening remarks have in the past failed to have a lasting effect.

DISPUTED WATERS

The North’s reaction was relatively calm in comparison with its threats of a retaliatory strike made as recently as last week, before Monday’s live-firing drill on Yeonpyeong, which lies in disputed waters off the west coast of the peninsula.

Its official Rodong Sinmun newspaper accused the United States of conspiring with the South and Japan to bring war to the Korean peninsula.

“The Korean peninsula has turned sharply unstable on the brink of war due to scheming by the U.S. to militarily stifle the North,” the commentary said.

Analysts say the North is unlikely, in the near-term at least, to launch a further attack against the South like last month’s shelling of Yeonpyeong or the sinking in March of the Cheonan warship. The South accuses North Korea of sinking the vessel, though the North denies involvement.

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 Pyongyang’s nuclear programme.

China, the impoverished North’s only major ally, has urged dialogue to resolve the crisis and has been reluctant lay to blame, frustrating Washington and its allies which want Beijing to do more to rein in Pyongyang.

Barack Obama is expected to press this point when Chinese President Hu Jintao visits the United States on January 19.

Chinese foreign ministry spokeswoman Jiang Yu, when asked about the drills, repeated Beijing’s call for a resumption of the so-called six-party talks.

“The current situation on the Korean peninsula remains highly complex,” she told a regular news briefing. “We urge parties concerned to exercise calm and restraint.”

Despite the North’s muted response this week, South Korea should not be complacent because Pyongyang will probably strike again when the conditions are right, Andrei Lankov at Kookmin University in Seoul said.

“The North Korean leaders did not duck the fight this time because they were afraid,” he wrote in Financial Times earlier this week referring to the Monday’s drills.

“Rather, they did what a cold-minded tactician should do: they avoided an engagement under unfavorable conditions chosen by the opponent, in order to strike the opponent at the time and place of their own choice, suddenly and forcefully.”  – Yahoo