SEOUL – South Korean President Lee Myung-Bak called Monday for national unity in the face of North Korean attacks, saying the communist state would exploit divisions to strike again.
Lee, in a fortnightly radio address, also told South Koreans not to fear war with what he called the world's “most belligerent regime”, even though Seoul's hope is for peace.
The South has staged a series of military exercises, including one with the United States, since the North shelled an island near the disputed Yellow Sea border last month and killed four people, including two civilians.
The North's ruling communist party newspaper branded the exercises a “dangerous collusion” between Seoul and Washington that would lead to “destruction”.
“But our patience is limited,” said Rodong Sinmun, denouncing Seoul as a “coward” for relying on Washington for military protection. The United States stations some 28,500 troops south of the border.
The North's artillery attack — the first on a civilian area in the South since their 1950-53 conflict — sparked fears of war.
But tensions have been high since May, when a South Korean-led multinational investigation concluded that a North Korean torpedo had sunk one of Seoul's warships two months earlier.
The North vehemently denied the warship attack, and the investigation's findings were questioned by some in the South.
Lee said those disagreements, due to “ideological lines and political interests”, had emboldened the North to stage the island attack.
“Seeing this, the North Koreans must have thought that their attacks could cause divisiveness in the South and that they might be able to get away with another provocation,” he said.
“They are focusing on trying to pull us apart… If we show the North Koreans how steadfastly united we are, they will not dare challenge us.”
Last month's artillery bombardment sparked widespread public anger. More than 80 percent of South Koreans believe their military should have hit back harder after the bombardment, according to a poll a week after the attack.
Lee cited a change of mood, saying applications to join the marine corps had doubled after the shelling.
The North accuses the South of provoking its November 23 bombardment of Yeonpyeong island by holding a firing drill there.
The South on December 20 staged another drill on Yeonpyeong but the North did not follow through with threats of a new and deadlier attack.
On Thursday last week, in another show of strength, Seoul deployed tanks, artillery and jet fighters in a live-fire exercise on the mainland.
The military said Sunday it would stage more firing drills this week, but not near the disputed sea border, describing them as routine training. A defence ministry spokesman said one of the drills was held Monday.
Lee called again for a strong response to any future attacks.
“We have now been awakened to the realisation that war can be prevented and peace assured only when such provocations are met with a strong response,” the president said. “Fear of war is never helpful in preventing war.”
Analysts along with US and South Korean government officials say the Yeonpyeong attack was likely linked to preparations for a power transfer in the North.
They say the aim is to present Kim Jong-Un, youngest son and heir apparent to Kim Jong-Il, as a tough and resolute leader and to create a warlike atmosphere to inspire unity.
A Seoul-based radio station which broadcasts to the North said Monday a train carrying birthday gifts for Jong-Un derailed this month in a possible act of sabotage.
Open Radio for North Korea said the train derailed upon departing from Sinuiju, on the border with China, on December 11.
It quoted a North Korean military intelligence official as saying sabotage by regime opponents may have caused the crash. The South's National Intelligence Service said it was checking the report.
Channel News Asia