South Korea vows air strikes if North attacks

A South Korean Air Force KF-16 fighter take off during a military exercise at the South Korean airbase in Seosan - 5 August 2010
Image caption Incoming Defence Minister Kim Kwan-jin promised air strikes if South Korea was attacked again

South Korea's defence minister-designate has promised a tougher response, including air strikes, if North Korea attacks again.

Kim Kwan-jin was responding to questions in parliament during his confirmation hearing.

North Korea shelled a Southern island near the two countries' disputed maritime border last week, killing four people and destroying many homes.

South Korea's spy chief has said another Northern attack was likely.

Tensions have soared in the region since the North Korean bombardment of Yeonpyeong island on 23 November. Two civilians and two South Korean marines were killed.

The shelling came after South Korean forces conducted exercises in the area.

"If North Korea provokes again, we will definitely use aircraft to attack North Korea," Mr Kim said when asked how he would respond to another attack.

He also criticised his predecessor, saying the military should not have ignored intelligence reports suggesting an attack from the North was likely.

More military leeway

Kim Tae-young was forced to resign just days after the bombardment of Yeonpyeong island, amid criticism that the military's response was too slow and too weak.

Kim Kwan-jin, a retired general and former head of South Korea's joint chiefs of staff, told his confirmation hearing that he would strengthen the military's rules of engagement, to give more power to the head of the military.

He said he would also give more leeway to commanders in the field to determine the level of response to attacks.

Korean broadcaster KBS said last week that more rigorous rules of engagement being proposed included return fire that was two to three times more powerful than any initial Northern fire.

The current rules call for a proportionate response with similar weapons and on a similar scale, to avoid escalation.

The North Korean bombardment produced images not seen since the Korean War 60 years ago, says the BBC's Lucy Williamson in Seoul.

The civilian casualties, bombed out buildings and a mass evacuation were all captured on the nightly news, she says, and the public pressure on the government to make changes is high.

Mr Kim said he did not think that North Korea was ready to launch a full-scale war because of the country's impoverished economy and the apparent transfer of power from leader Kim Jong-il to his third son, Kim Jong-un.

'Brink of war'

Many analysts have viewed the bombardment and other recent North Korean actions as an attempt to bolster the standing of Kim Jong-un in the eyes of the North's military.

In a sign that tensions on the divided peninsula may escalate further, South Korean military officials said live-ammunition artillery exercises would be held soon near the disputed western maritime border.

Joint South Korean-US military exercises that ended a few days ago provoked an angry response the North, with Pyongyang saying before they began that they would push the region to "the brink of war".

Once they began, Pyongyang warned: "We will deliver a brutal military blow on any provocation which violates our territorial waters," the North's state-controlled KCNA news agency said.

Pressure on China

The exercises were planned long before the shelling of Yeonpyeong, but South Korea and the US are planning more naval drills.

Meanwhile, South Korean officers are observing for the first time joint Japan-US military exercises.

The US has put pressure on China, North Korea's biggest ally, to moderate North Korea's behaviour.

China has refused to place blame for the crisis on either side, instead calling for a resumption of six-party talks aimed at ending North Korea's nuclear programme.

"Those who brandish weapons are seen to be justified," said Chinese foreign ministry spokeswoman Jiang Yu.

"Yet China is criticised for talks. Is that justified?"