South Korea begins shakeup of its military
SEOUL — Responding to growing public criticism after a deadly North Korean attack, President Lee Myung-bak accepted the resignation of his defense minister yesterday and announced changes in the military’s rules of engagement to make it easier for South Korea to strike with greater force, especially if civilians are threatened.
The government also announced plans to increase the number of troops and heavy weapons on Yeonpyeong Island, where two marines and two civilians died Tuesday in an artillery fusillade from the North.
But Lee, who came to office two years ago vowing to get tough with the North, has little maneuvering room in formulating a response. While the attack has pushed anti-North Korean sentiment here to its highest level in years, there is little public support for taking military action that might lead to an escalation of hostilities.
“North Korea has nothing to lose, while we have everything to lose,’’ said Kang Won-taek, a professor of politics at Seoul National University.
The South’s powerful neighbor is also counseling restraint. The Chinese prime minister, Wen Jiabao, said yesterday that Beijing opposed any provocative military behavior by either side on the Korean Peninsula, the state news agency reported.
Yesterday, while North Korea warned via its official news agency of further military retaliation if provoked by South Korea, Lee said only, “We should not drop our guard in preparation for the possibility of another provocation by North Korea,’’ said his spokesman, Hong Sang-pyo.
The changes in the rules of engagement were similarly restrained. South Korean defenses on five coastal islands in the Yellow Sea had been set up primarily to guard against possible amphibious landings. Critics said the military had not anticipated the possibility of an attack by North Korean artillery batteries.
The new measures he outlined include doubling the number of howitzers and upgrading other weaponry.
The new rules of engagement will be based on whether military or civilian sites are the targets, Hong said.
Previously, South Korean forces were allowed to respond only in kind — if the North fired artillery, the South could answer only with artillery — to contain any dispute. Now, officials said, the military would be allowed to respond with greater force.
The aftermath of this week’s artillery attack was not the first time Lee has come under criticism for sitting on his hands in the face of a deadly provocation by the North. Two years ago, when a South Korean tourist was shot by a sentry at a North Korean resort, his government’s response was a slap on the wrist: suspending tours to the resort and barring South Korean civic groups from visiting the North.
But the clearest case was Lee’s response in March to the sinking of a South Korean warship, the Cheonan.
Lee at first seemed to stall by waiting for the results of an international investigation, which took two months to conclude that the ship had been sunk by a North Korean torpedo. When he responded, it was with relatively mild measures, including reducing the South’s already minuscule trade with the North and demanding an apology. But Lee dropped the apology demand as a precondition for talks.
Lee was widely blamed in South Korea for having provoked the Cheonan episode by ending unconditional aid to the North at the start of his presidency.
“Before, the public saw him as too hard, and now they see him as too soft,’’ said Yoo Ho-yeol, a professor of North Korean studies at Korea University in Seoul.