December 3, 2010 12:36 pm

Seoul threatens air strikes against N Korea

Seoul has vowed to use its jet fighters to strike North Korea if it attacks again, making its strongest threat to hit targets in the country for several years.

South Korea’s government has faced severe criticism for its weak retaliation after the Pyongyang’s bombardment of a South Korean island last week in which four people were killed. Kim Tae-young, the outgoing defence minister, said the government had not hit back with F-15s and F-16s through fear of triggering a full war.

But his successor, Kim Kwan-jin, warned on Friday that: “In case of further provocations, we will definitely strike North Korea by air”.

Mr Kim was speaking to parliamentarians at his confirmation hearing. Lee Myung-bak, the president, has previously vowed that any further attacks will spark a forceful response from Seoul. However, parliamentarians have condemned Mr Lee’s threats as empty rhetoric because he made the same pledge after a warship was torpedoed in March with the loss of 46 sailors.

South Korea is not known to have struck back in earnest at a target inside North Korea since the 1950-1953 Korean War. After North Korean commandos tried to storm Seoul’s presidential palace in 1968, South Korea trained a suicide team to attack the North, but aborted the mission.

South Korea’s air force, supported by the US, has massive superiority to the ancient Soviet jets of the North. However, analysts believe the South could only win a pyrrhic victory. Seoul lies in easy range of North Korean artillery and would be pulverised in any open conflict. Pyongyang also has crude nuclear warheads.

Still, Seoul is under intense pressure to threaten the North with significant retaliation as its artillery failed to deliver a convincing counter-attack after last week’s bombardment. The military conceded that some gun batteries had been inoperable and that almost half of South Korea’s retaliatory shells had fallen harmlessly into the sea.

North Korea under Kim Jong-il, Pyongyang’s leader, hides much of its artillery in almost impregnable coastal caves.

The use of air power has been under intense discussion since last Tuesday’s attack. South Korean security officials have been seeking to make the country’s rules of engagement more hard-hitting.

One of the key proposals under discussion has been whether South Korean pilots need permission from United Nations forces on the peninsula – effectively the US – before opening fire. They have also been seeking a broader mandate for South Korean fighters to open fire first.

Brian Myers, a scholar at Dongseo university, has warned that North Korea’s motivation hinges on a state ideology of “military first”. He argues that Pyongyang – confident that Seoul will never retaliate – will keep trying to score victories against the South, as its ideology demands, until it sparks a war.

Other analysts say Pyongyang’s attacks are far more calibrated, targeting marine border areas where South Korea does not feel forced to escalate the conflict.

They say Pyongyang’s attacks are intended only to gain diplomatic leverage or help style the heir apparent – Kim Jong-eun, Kim Jong-il’s third son – as a strong military leader to smooth his succession.

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