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(EDITORIAL from the Korea Herald on Nov. 27)

All News 09:12 November 27, 2010

Step up vigilance

The government has come up with a set of measures to counter future aggression by North Korea in the conflict-ridden West Sea. The package calls for bolstering military forces on the five front-line islands near the maritime border, including Yeonpyeong Island that was bombarded by the North on Tuesday, and toughening the rules of engagement against the North’s attacks.

Boosting combat capability on the islands is necessary since the troops on Yeonpyeong Island were found to be not adequately equipped to effectively retaliate against the North’s deadly artillery attack that killed two marines and as many civilians and wounded more than a dozen others.

According to press reports, three of the six K-9 self-propelled guns deployed on the island did not function during the initial 12 minutes of the North’s bombardment. Furthermore, the Army’s mobile radar systems that track incoming artillery and rocket fire are reportedly not compatible with the computer network connected to frontline troops, requiring operators to input the coordinates of the enemy artillery manually. This caused a delay in returning fire.

The government said it would double the number of 155-mm howitzers deployed on Yeonpyeong Island. It will also scrap the former administration’s plan to gradually scale down the presence of the marines on the five islands.

But deploying more howitzers would not be enough. The guns are not appropriate to destroy the enemy’s cannons and howitzers that are hidden in caves dug into coastal cliffs. To zero in on these bases, more advanced weapons are needed. In this respect, President Lee Myung-bak instructed that the troops on the five islands be equipped with the world’s highest-level weapons.

But the most effective means of subduing the North’s coastal artillery is jet fighter bombing. The Air Force scrambled six fighter jets immediately after the North began shelling but they stopped short of engaging because, under the present battle manual, they need approval from the presidential office to unleash a counterattack.

In this regard, it was right for the government to seek a revision of the rules of engagement. The rules were written in 1953 by the United Nations Command when it drew the Northern Limit Line as the sea border. They are passive in nature since they were primarily designed to prevent an accidental skirmish from escalating into a full-blown war.

The government said it would change the South’s paradigm of responding to North Korea’s aggression. In our view, the new rules should be based on the policy of prompt and massive retaliation to terminate any enemy attack from the start and discourage the North from venturing into another reckless aggression.

For this, the South should secure overwhelming firepower and allow fighter jets to launch counterattacks against the North’s attacks. Once the new rules are established, the government should convey a clear message to the North that its unprovoked attacks would be dealt with in a different way.

While it is necessary to reinforce combat capability on the five frontline islands and revise the rules of engagement, it is also necessary to prepare against the possibility of the North undertaking terrorist attacks or unconventional warfare in the South.

North Korea is highly likely to plot additional provocations unless South Korea and the United States change course and start the six-party talks on its nuclear program. But it is likely to use a different approach because it knows that the South is ready to retaliate massively against another shelling of a West Sea island.

If North Korean agents, for instance, destroy a high-rise building in downtown Seoul or assassinate key figures, the South would be caught off balance and find it difficult to retaliate. The government needs to prepare for the North’s tactic of looking one way and rowing another. While our attention is focused on the West Sea, it may hit somewhere else.

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