SEOUL, South Korea – North Korea lambasted South Korea's new defense chief Sunday for threatening to launch air strikes against the North and accused the South of causing "uncontrollable, extreme" tension on the peninsula.
The South's Defense Minister Kim Kwan-jin told a confirmation hearing last week that jets would bomb the North if it stages another attack like the shelling on a front-line island that killed four South Koreans. Kim took office Saturday, replacing a predecessor who resigned amid criticism that South Korea's response to the Nov. 23 shelling was too slow and weak.
The North's official Korean Central News Agency issued a statement Sunday accusing the South of staging a series of "frantic provocations" including the defense minister's remarks.
"The frantic provocations ... are rapidly driving the situation on the Korean peninsula to an uncontrollable extreme phase," the official Korean Central News Agency said in a dispatch from Pyongyang.
The dispatch said South Korea plans to stage new naval drills with the United States soon, start its own live-fire drills from Monday and deploy missiles, rockets and other sophisticated weapons to Yeonpyeong Island that was hit by the artillery barrage.
"The puppet military warlike forces were reported to have already worked out the so-called 'retaliatory plan' which calls for sparking off an armed clash after getting on the nerves of the (North Korean) military and taking a large-scale counteraction under this pretext," it said.
South Korea's military declined Sunday to confirm whether it has such a military plan. Joint Chiefs of Staff officers only said a new joint drill with the U.S. — which would follow last week's massive joint naval drill in the Yellow Sea — is still under discussion with Washington and the live-fire exercise is a routine drill that was scheduled well before the artillery barrage.
Kim inspected an army base near the heavily fortified land border Sunday and urged troops to strengthen their combat capability and mental toughness, according to his office. A day earlier, he visited Yeonpyeong Island and vowed to take strong measures to ensure North Korea would not dare to make more provocations.
Despite the recent attack, the Defense Ministry believes it's unlikely North Korea would launch a full-scale war as it could not wage a conflict for long and because of South Korea's solid military alliance with the U.S., Yonhap news agency reported Sunday citing the military. The report said South Korea plans to put the assessment in a defense white paper to be published later this month. A Defense Ministry official, however, speaking on condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the issue, said the ministry has yet to finalize the contents of the assessment.
Skirmishes occur periodically along the two Koreas' disputed western maritime border, but the latest assault on Yeonpyeong Island, home to both fishing communities and military bases, was the North's first to target a civilian area since the 1950-53 Korean War.
The attack came eight months after the deadly sinking of a South Korean warship blamed on a North Korean torpedo attack — also near the tense maritime border. Forty-six sailors were killed and North Korea has vehemently denied involvement.
The North also stoked regional tension last month by revealing a large uranium-enrichment facility that would give it a new method of making material for atomic bombs in addition to its known plutonium-based program. Top diplomats from the U.S., South Korea and Japan were to meet in Washington on Monday to discuss the North's nuclear program and its artillery barrage.
The Korean War ended with an armistice, not a peace treaty, technically leaving the peninsula at war. The U.S. stations 28,500 troops in South Korea to deter potential aggression from North Korea, which considers the troops a threat rather than a deterrent.
Meanwhile, about 350 island evacuees who now live at a public bath house in the western port city of Incheon staged a rally Sunday, demanding the government quickly provide them with residences. Some protesters scuffled with police trying to prevent them from marching through downtown streets but no one was injured, according to Incheon police officer Ko In-sup.
Associated Press writer Kim Kwang-tae in Seoul contributed to this report.