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(News Focus) Two years into term, Lee gov't builds up defense against N. Korea

All Headlines 15:05 February 23, 2010

By Shin Hae-in

SEOUL, Feb. 23 (Yonhap) -- Two years into his term, the government of President Lee Myung-bak has based its defense policy on an indisputable fact: North Korea poses direct and grave military threats to South Korea.

The previous government under the late president Roh Moo-hyun described North Korea as "direct military threats" in the defense white pater but the incumbent government defined North Korea as a more serious threat, adding the adjective "grave" to the sentence in the paper in 2008.

Under Lee, South Korea's handling of North Korean threats has been much tougher than under his two predecessors, who sought to embrace the prickly communist neighbor through their engagement policies. When North Korea's military made threats, the Lee government retorted with stern warnings that the South is ready to repel any provocation.

That stance stems from Lee's principle that the North should no longer be pampered with unconditional aid while seeking nuclear ambitions, should act like a normal country and give up its nuclear weapons and related programs.

Another key element in Lee's defense policy has been strengthening ties with traditional ally the United States, which local conservative critics have claimed was significantly weakened under previous administrations.

"The Lee Myung-bak government set national security and the Korea-U.S. alliance as the top priority. This policy has been proven effective, especially with the recent unstable conditions on the Korean Peninsula," said Roh Hun, researcher at the Korea Institute for Defense Analyses (KIDA).

"Arms buildup plans are expected to be readjusted to a realistic level in the coming years," he said. "This means the military will be able to deal more effectively with imminent threats, namely from North Korea, as the defense reforms shape up."

A few months after its inauguration in early 2008, the Lee government unveiled a sweeping defense reform plan seeking military buildups to thwart continuing threats from North Korea. Dubbed the "Defense Reform 2020," the plan aims to make the South Korean armed forces slimmer but stronger by equipping them with high-tech weapons systems.

The plan clearly states its purpose as to "deal with the North Korean army's threat," a phrase that was missing under the defense reforms sought by the previous government.

Lee's immediate predecessor, the late President Roh Moo-hyun, had persistently sought to make South Korea's military less dependent on the U.S., a cause of concern for many security-sensitive South Koreans.

But the Lee government sees North Korea as one of its foremost enemies, a view that helped strengthen the decades-long Seoul-Washington alliance.

For a year and a half after Lee's inauguration, North Korea harshly criticized the South for its hard-line stance on the totalitarian regime, repeatedly issuing harsh threats.

The South remained undaunted, eventually leading Pyongyang to soften its rhetoric and reach out to Seoul.

Still, the North ratcheted up tension from time to time, provoking an armed clash with the South in last November. The South responded sternly to the provocation, using 100 times more firepower than its North Korean counterpart during the two-minute battle.

The shoot-out left at least one North Korean soldier dead and sent its boat back in flames.

"While the previous governments often downplayed threats posed by the North Korean military, the incumbent administration is well aware of the threats and is willing to be fully prepared for all kinds of scenarios," an official at the defense ministry said, declining to be named.

South Korea's Defense Minister Kim Tae-young has made clear that the North will pay a high price if it provokes a military clash, warning that his military would make a preemptive strike if it detects a clear sign of the North's nuclear attack.

The minister has also said that South Korea has prepared itself for 33 possible "North Korean attack scenarios" and will immediately scramble F-15K fighter jets should it detect an air offensive from the North.

North Korea watchers in Seoul believe that Pyongyang will likely continue to make military provocations to show South Korea and the United States that the Korean Peninsula is still a war zone and thereby emphasizing the need for a peace treaty to officially end the war -- one of its long-standing demands.

The 1950-53 Korean War ended in a truce, leaving the two Koreas still technically at war. Pyongyang has constantly pushed for negotiations to forge a peace pact, but Seoul and Washington want the communist state to first make a commitment to rejoin the suspended international talks aimed at ending its nuclear ambitions.

"The previous government ended up weakening the Korea-U.S. alliance while also failing to solve the North Korean nuclear issue by making a peace treaty between the two Koreas the top priority," Prof. Kim Sung-han of Seoul's Korea University told a recent defense forum. "We are on the right track to put denuclearization before everything else."

South Korea's national defense capabilities are expected to be put to the test as the country is scheduled to regain wartime operational control, or OPCON, of its troops from the United States on April 17, 2012.

The U.S.-led Combined Forces Command currently holds OPCON, receiving it in 1978 from the United Nations Command, which led the South Korean forces in the Korean War.

South Korea received peacetime control over its troops back from Washington in 1994. The U.S. stations about 28,500 troops in South Korea.

The scheduled OPCON transfer has spawned concerns over a weakening of South Korea's defensive capabilities amid Pyongyang's continuing nuclear development, another element in the country's push for stronger armed forces.

"The armed forces of South Korea and the United States must work closely to set up plans for joint defense in the event of a war or other emergency," Prof. Kim said.

hayney@yna.co.kr
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