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SEOUL — Believing the next North Korean attack would likely hit the Yellow Sea islands west of the peninsula, the South Korean government has taken a number of steps aimed at bolstering its defenses in the region.

And if the military’s accidental firing last month at a civilian aircraft in the area is any indication, the South’s response to such a provocation could be much more forceful than the last time North Korea shelled one of the islands in November.

Two marines mistakenly fired 99 rounds at an Asiana Airlines plane from a guard post on Gyodong Island on June 17. Yet, they were not so much as reprimanded because, South Korean military officials said, they had followed the new rules of engagement. While visiting with troops on the Yellow Sea islands earlier this year, South Korean Defense Minister Kim Kwan-jin told them in the event of trouble from the North: “Don’t ask whether to shoot or not. Shoot first and report later,” according to a Yonhap News Agency report.

South Korean government and military officials were roundly criticized in the media last year for responding with little more than rhetoric and economic sanctions after 46 sailors were killed when one of the South’s warships was sunk in March, and two civilians and two troops were killed when Yeonpyeong Island was shelled.

In response, the South Korean military was restructured with the creation of the Northwest Islands Defense Command, that reports directly to the chairman of the South’s Joint Chiefs of Staff and be tasked with defending its five westernmost islands from attacks by the North.

In a statement issued when the command was launched last month, President Lee Myung Bak said that when Yeonpyeong was attacked, “Our military did not rapidly and effectively face enemy provocations.”

Only a group with “steadfast courage can ensure peace and security,” he said.

The South Korean military said it also has increased its manpower, firepower and equipment on and around the islands, and reportedly helicopter hangars will be built on Baengnyeong Island — just west of Yeonpyeong — to accommodate an undisclosed number of attack helicopters.

Baek Seung-joo, a senior analyst at the Korea Institute of Defense Analyses in Seoul, said the stage is set for a potential battle between the two Koreas over the Yellow Sea islands, and if push again comes to shove, “South Korea will launch a punishing military attack.”

South Korea’s tougher stance is clearly on the U.S.’s radar.

At a recent U.S. Senate Armed Service Committee hearing, U.S. Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., said he was concerned that South Korea is unlikely to let another attack go unanswered, potentially involving the U.S., which is bound by treaty obligations to protect South Korea.

“It’s clear to me that if there’s another provocation, Korea will not turn a cheek,” McCain told the panel.

U.S. Forces Korea commander Gen. Walter Sharp told the same committee in April that in the event of another act of aggression from North Korea akin to the sinking of the Cheonan or the shelling of Yeonpyeong Island, “The Republic of Korea will immediately strike back in a proportionate and a self-defense manner, but very strong.”

In recent weeks, both Kim and Sharp have publicly warned that a surprise North Korean attack on the South in the near future is likely given continuing tensions between the two countries.

In recent years, numerous experts have told Stars and Stripes that North Korea has no interest in another all-out war with the South because it realizes that will likely result in the end of the current regime. However, the North sees great value and opportunity in launching relatively small-scale provocations against its enemy, they said.

“The North will not start a total war because it is afraid of an all-out war ... fear of extinction,” Baek said. “If the North attacks the mainland, for instance like the (Demilitarized Zone), it would be regarded as a whole provocation.

“But, a provocation on the western islands can be considered a regional provocation,” he said, and not one likely to result in another Korean War.

The western islands are also likely targets because they are actually closer to the North Korean mainland than to the South’s, experts said.

Furthermore, Sharp said North has a history of using acts of aggression to achieve economic goals, and a new attack is likely because of growing frustrations that the government will not be able to deliver on the promise it has made for years to its people to become a “strong and prosperous nation” by 2012 - the 100th anniversary of the birth of the nation’s founder, Kim Il Sung.

“Their desire to antagonize, provoke, appease and demand concessions have been taken in order to achieve the regime’s goals of gaining food, fuel (and) economic aid to sustain their regime at all (cost),” Sharp told the Association of the Republic of Korea Army on June 20.

Gen. James Thurman, who will succeed Sharp later this month, told the Armed Service Committee Tuesday that North Korea’s Kim Jong Il will continue his “cycle of provocations” and will remain the most dangerous threat to North Asia.

Sharp said, “I hope (North Korean leader) Kim Jong Il understands that ... if North Korea strikes again ... there will be a very strong and appropriate response going back into North Korea. The capability is real and we have the plans in place to make that happen.”

author picture
Yoo Kyong Chang is a reporter/translator covering the U.S. military from Camp Humphreys, South Korea. She graduated from Korea University and also studied at the University of Akron in Ohio.

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