South Korea strengthens military near border after attack

South Korea ordered extra troops be deployed to islands near North Korea on Thursday, with Pyongyang warning it would follow its latest bombardment with more attacks if its wealthy neighbour tried any “provocations”.

China is coming under increasing pressure to rein its prickly ally and South Korean media reports said Tuesday’s artillery attack was likely personally ordered by Pyongyang’s reclusive leader Kim Jong-il.

“[North Korea] will wage second and even third rounds of attacks without any hesitation, if warmongers in South Korea make reckless military provocations again,” the North’s KCNA news agency quoted a statement from the military as saying.

Kim, along with his son and designated heir Jong-un, visited the coastal artillery base from where shells were fired at a South Korean island near the disputed maritime boundary just hours before the attack, newspapers in Seoul reported.

South Korea’s military was “focusing on the possibility of Kim Jong-il and his son approving the shelling of Yeonpyeong”, the Chosun Ilbo quoted an unnamed member of the National Assembly’s Defence Committee as saying.

Rogue military commander
The government declined comment but, if correct, would rule out one theory that the North’s bombardment of Yeonpyeong island, just south of a disputed sea border, might have been the decision of a rogue military commander.

At least four people, including two civilians were killed and dozens of houses destroyed onthe island in the heaviest attack by the North since the Korean War ended in 1953.

It marked the first civilian deaths in an assault since the bombing of a South Korean airliner in 1987.

North Korea said the shelling was in self-defence after Seoul fired shells into its waters near the disputed maritime border.

South Korean President Lee Myung-bak convened an emergency meeting early on Thursday to look at how to contain the economic impact from the attack and additional security measures.

The military presence on the islands in the Yellow Sea near the disputed border will be boosted and an earlier plan to scale down marine troops stationed there will be cancelled, a presidential Blue official said later.

South Korea also said it would pursue constructive engagement with China to use its influence over Pyongyang.

That plan looked to have suffered a setback with a later announcement that Chinese Foreign Minister Yang Jiechi had delayed a plan to visit Seoul this week. No reason was given.

Unsettle China
Adding to tension in the world’s fastest growing economic region, the United States (US) dispatched an aircraft carrier group headed by the USS George Washington to the Yellow Sea off the Korean peninsula to take part in joint drills with South Korea.

Although the US Forces Korea said the exercise had been planned well before the attack, many expect the move to enrage the North and unsettle China.

Beijing has said previously that it sees any joint US-South Korea exercises in the waters between the Korean peninsula and China as a threat to its security and to regional stability.

Admiral Mike Mullen, chairperson of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said Washington was working with allies on ways to respond to the attack, adding: “It’s very important for China to lead”.

China has long propped up the Pyongyang leadership, worried that a collapse of the North could bring instability to its own borders. Beijing is also wary of a unified Korea that would be dominated by the United States, the key ally of the South.

“If China does not put public pressure on North Korea, provocations by North Korea will continue,” Seoul’s Chosun Ilbo newspaper said.

“If the Korean peninsula is in flames, Chinese prosperity will shake from the bottom.”

Civilian deaths
The deaths of civilians have added to the anger in the South.

“Let me say a word about those bastards at the Blue House who advised the president to say the situation should be managed to avoid a full-blown war,” the Korean JoongAng Daily quoted ruling party representative Hong Sa-duk as saying.

“They must all be fired for advising the president to have such a weak response.”

While the rhetoric continues, global markets have moved on to other issues after Tuesday’s attack.
The stock market opened up in Seoul on Thursday and looked likely to head back to pre-attack levels. However, the won currency remained under pressure due to lingering caution.

Mullen said he believed the attack was linked to the upcoming succession in North Korea’s leadership.

Widely thought to be in failing health, Kim Jong-il appointed his younger son to key posts in September, a move seen as grooming him to be the North’s next leader. But Kim Jong-un has no real support base, and with the economy in dire straits there is a risk powerful military or government figures may decide the time is opportune for a power grab.—Reuters

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