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(LEAD) U.S. shares 'common ground' on S. Korea's right to self-defense: official

All News 18:00 December 07, 2010

(ATTN: ADDS JCS chairman's quote in final three paras; CHANGES photo)

SEOUL, Dec. 7 (Yonhap) -- South Korea and the United States share "common ground" on Seoul exercising the right of self-defense in case of future attacks by North Korea, and the two countries will also discuss changing the rules of engagement, a senior military official here said Tuesday.

The coordination between the allies effectively paves the way for South Korea to quickly and more strongly respond to North Korean attacks with force without being controlled by the rules of engagement, which are jointly governed by U.S. forces stationed in the South, Deputy Defense Minister Chang Kwang-il told reporters.

"South Korea and the U.S. share common ground on the matter of invoking our right of self-defense," Chang told reporters. "We also plan to hold working-level talks with the U.S. side to modify the rules of engagement."

Reeling from North Korea's artillery assault on a South Korean island on Nov. 23, which killed four people, South Korea's Defense Minister Kim Kwan-jin had ordered his military to invoke the right of self-defense should the nation come under another attack by Pyongyang.

Kim has said the right of self-defense will be applied separately from the rules of engagement, which focus on preventing an escalation into a greater conflict, to allow the military to respond faster and with more muscle.

Under the right of self-defense, Kim said, South Korea will "definitely" use air strikes if attacked by the North.

Some critics, however, have raised doubts over Kim's directive, citing a possible conflict between the right of self-defense and the rules of engagement.

Currently, the U.S.-led United Nations Command (UNC) supervises the armistice agreement that ended the 1950-53 Korean War. The top U.S. commander of some 28,500 American troops stationed in the South has the wartime command authority.

Based on "necessity and proportional principles," the rules of engagement prevent the South Korean military from attacking unless there is an absolute need, and bind military response to a corresponding degree of the attack by an enemy.

Earlier in the day, the defense minister convened a meeting of some 150 commanders and renewed his vows of tougher retaliation against future strikes by the North.

"At the meeting, Defense Minister Kim ordered commanders to retaliate forcefully until the root of the threat is eliminated by exercising the right of self-defense," Chang told reporters.

Commanders in the field will be allowed to "act first and report later," he said.

At the meeting, the defense minister pressed the nation's military to improve its effectiveness.

"The military should boldly transform itself from an administrative military to combat-ready armed forces," Chang quoted the minister as saying.

The military is under fierce criticism for being too feeble in responding to the North's shelling on Yeonpyeong Island. There was a 13-minute lapse before the first counter-fire, and there are doubts over whether the South's artillery hit targets in the North.

The North's strike on Yeonpyeong, which also left 18 people injured and dozens of homes destroyed, marked the first attack by North Korea on a civilian area in the South's territory since the end of the 1950-53 Korean War.

Pyongyang has yet to take responsibility for the March sinking of South Korean warship, the Cheonan, that killed 46 sailors.

Gen. Han Min-koo, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff (JCS), said the military is in "the most difficult situation" since the Korean War following the North's shelling on Yeonpyeong and the ship sinking.

"We must build a stronger military force that can fight and win under any circumstances," Han told the commanders.


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