S. Korea Vows Strong Response if N. Korea Attacks


South Korea's military must retaliate "strongly and thoroughly" if North Korea attacks again, President Lee Myung-Bak said Wednesday.

He made the remarks in a speech read out on his behalf at the inauguration of a new military command, created to bolster defenses on islands near the disputed Yellow Sea border.

"Our military exists to prevent war and defend peace, but it must strongly and thoroughly retaliate in case of attacks," said Lee, who was not present at the ceremony at Hwaseong City, some 20 km south of Seoul.

The South's military was widely criticized for a perceived weak and slow response when North Korea last November shelled Yeonpyeong Island, one of five frontline islands, and killed four people.

The South also says the North torpedoed a warship near Baengnyeong, another of the border islands, killing 46 sailors in March 2010. Pyongyang angrily denied responsibility.

Lee said the North had continuously engaged in provocative acts since the Korean War ended in 1953, but these two deadly attacks had taught the South's military costly lessons.

"Our military failed to react swiftly and efficiently to the North's asymmetric military forces and provocations in limited areas," he said, adding its different branches also failed to coordinate.

He said the inauguration of the Northwest Islands Defense Command is "the first fruit" of defense reform under his administration.

The joint command, comprising 77 officers from the army, navy, air force and Marine Corps, will be in charge of defending the five islands and the Northern Limit Line (NLL).

North Korea does not recognize the NLL, which was drawn unilaterally at the end of the war by U.S.-led United Nations forces, and demands a new line be set.

In a speech to the same ceremony, Defense Minister Kim Kwan-Jin urged the military to stay alert to possible further attacks.

"We must maintain combat-readiness to sternly respond to any future aggression by the North," he said.

Since the shelling on Yeonpyeong, the South has significantly strengthened defenses on the five islands.

New weapons will reportedly include tanks, rocket launchers, artillery-detecting radar, bunker-busting bombs, precision air-to-ground missiles and attack helicopters.

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