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S. Korean President Taking North Threats 'Very Seriously'

  • Steve Herman

A South Korean soldier walks up the stairs at an observation post, near the demilitarized zone that separates the two Koreas, in Paju, north of Seoul, March 12, 2013.

A South Korean soldier walks up the stairs at an observation post, near the demilitarized zone that separates the two Koreas, in Paju, north of Seoul, March 12, 2013.

South Korean President Park Geun-hye, says she is taking “very seriously” the continuing stream of threats from the North that many fear could lead to hostilities on the peninsula.

“There should be a strong response in initial combat without any political consideration” if North Korea launches a provocation against the South,” said Park during a meeting with her defense minister and senior officials of the Ministry of National Defense.

During a briefing for the president, the ministry outlined a new plan allowing the military to launch a pre-emptive strike against North Korea should an imminent nuclear or missile attack on the South be detected, including pushing forward the deployment of a “kill chain” system designed to detect, target and destroy missiles.

North Korean leader Kim Jong Un has vowed to expand his nuclear arsenal.

Speaking to the central committee of the workers' party Sunday, Kim laid down a “new strategic line,” saying that under no circumstances would North Korea's nuclear weapons be a bargaining chip in the political or economic arena.

Members of North Korea's legislature, the Supreme People's Assembly, gathered Monday in Pyongyang. According to North Korea's news agency, Monday's meeting approved a new law that consolidates the country's position as a nuclear weapons state for "self-defense." The ordinance calls for North Korea to "take practical steps to bolster up the nuclear deterrence and nuclear retaliatory strike power both in quality and quantity to cope with the gravity of the escalating danger of the hostile forces' aggression and attack."

The news agency also announced that Pak Pong Ju, believed to favor China-style economic reforms, will replace Choe Yong Rim as premier. Pak was removed from the same post in 2007.

Joint military exercises anger North

North Korea has reacted stridently in recent weeks to annual joint military exercises between South Korea and the United States.

Those drills have included unusual demonstrations of U.S. air power, including simulated long-range bombing runs by B-52 and B-2 strategic bombers.

On Sunday, a pair of U.S. Air Force F-22 Raptor jets flew from Kadena Air Base on the Japanese island of Okinawa to Osan Air Base, 65 kilometers south of Seoul. The stealth fighters are participating in the Foal Eagle exercise, which lasts until the end of this month.

“Despite challenges with fiscal constraints, training opportunities remain important to ensure U.S. forces are battle-ready and trained to employ air power to deter aggression, defend the ROK (Republic of Korea), and defeat any attack against the alliance," said U.S. Air Force Major Christopher Anderson, 18th Wing Public Affairs Chief, in an e-mail to the VOA Seoul bureau. "The F-22 demonstrates one of the many capabilities available for South Korea's defense," he said.

This month, South Korean marines are to stage four exercises together with the U.S. Marine Corps. The war games will include landings and maneuvering of mechanized units.

Warnings from Kim Jong Un

In recent weeks, Pyongyang has declared the 1953 armistice invalid, vowed to launch a pre-emptive nuclear strike against the U.S. mainland and bases in the Pacific, cut a pair of hotlines with the South and declare a state of war to be in effect.

The moves followed United Nations Security Council approval of additional sanctions on Pyongyang following last December's long-range rocket launch and February's nuclear test -- the third by North Korea.

Despite the heated rhetoric from Pyongyang, which the White House says it takes seriously, there is no sense of panic in Seoul.

Thailand says their officials in Seoul have been asked to prepare an emergency evacuation plan of all Thai nationals in South Korea if hostilities erupt.

India Ambassador to South Korea Vishnu Prakash used Twitter to communicate his government's assessment of the situation to the thousands of Indian nationals in the country.

The ambassador's message provided a link to an advisory published online Monday that stressed nothing unusual was going on in South Korea and that “from all available indications, there is little likelihood of any imminent or active hostilities breaking out on the Korean peninsula." It advised that the embassy would immediately alert the community by telephone or electronically, should there be any adverse development.

Diplomats eyeing Kaesong for clues

Diplomats from several countries have said they expect to act on their contingency plans only if Pyongyang closes the Kaesong Industrial Complex, a North-South joint venture facility just north of the demilitarized zone. Hundreds of South Korean managers supervise small factories there, in which thousands of North Korean workers assemble household goods.

Spokesman Kim Hyung-suk at the Unification Ministry, which is in charge of South-North relations, says the facility was still operating normally Monday.

“The government has a basic duty to protect its citizens and there is a full readiness posture for all contingencies,” Kim told reporters. However, “it is not appropriate to reveal details on how South Korea would respond to any given situation.”

Analysts say an unprecedented closure of the facility would be an ominous sign as it is a significant source of desperately needed hard currency for the impoverished and isolated North.

But North Korea, in a statement on Saturday, reversed the rationale for the industrial park, asserting Pyongyang was maintaining its operation primarily for the benefit of small South Korean companies.

A North Korean agency in charge of the complex, The Central Guidance to the Development of the Special Zone, warns that, if there is “any attempt to damage the dignity” of the country then it will “ruthlessly shut down” the joint facility.

The fate of the unique operation, established in 2002, “depends on the attitude of the South’s government,” according to the North Korean message.

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    Steve Herman

    A veteran journalist, Steve Herman is VOA's Southeast Asia Bureau Chief and Correspondent, based in Bangkok.

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