Seoul (AsiaNews) – Tensions remain high on the Korean Peninsula following an attack from the North against Yeonpyeong Island, which is held by South Korea. Authorities in Seoul have changed the rules of engagement, increasing troop deployment to the island, which is located on 38th parallel. North Korea has threatened “serious consequences” in case of threats or aggression. Meanwhile, the international community is divided.
China, North Korea’s main sponsor, said it was “worried” about joint US-South Korea military exercises in the Yellow Sea. A visit by Chinese foreign minister to South Korea was postponed.
Officials in Seoul and Washington yesterday announced the joint exercises, set to begin on Sunday. The US air carrier George Washington is on its way to the Yellow Sea.
Tied by friendship and defence agreements with North Korea, China “has always been committed to maintaining peace and stability on the Korean Peninsula and opposes any threat of force”. So far, Beijing has not yet condemned the attack launched by its North Korean ally against the island; it did however express “pain and regret over the casualties”.
South Korean President Lee Myung-Bak issued orders to beef up security measures around the island. He chaired an emergency session of his cabinet to discuss the political and military consequences of the incident that killed four people. "We should not let our guard down in preparation for another possible North Korean provocation," Lee said during the meeting.
The president also ordered an increase in the defence budget to counter the North’s asymmetric threats. He also rescinded 2006 orders to cut back on marine force deployment on the island.
“The rules of engagement we have now can be rather passive as they are focused on preventing an escalation, so it was agreed to devise a fresh set of rules based on a new paradigm for countering the North’s provocations”. Attacks on civilians and the military, for example, will be met with different levels of counterattack.
Pyongyang’s attack, the first since 1953 that was not aimed only at a military target, killed two civilians.
South Korean authorities are reviewing aid by private groups to the North, including the local Caritas, “in consideration of various situations including the public sentiment”. They also said they would try to get the international community, especially China, to put pressure on Pyongyang.
In the meantime, explanations for why the North attacked abound. Rim Jong-jin, a 50-year-old North Korean refugee who spent 12 years in North Korea’s army, told AsiaNews that the “attack was ordered by Kim Jong-un, the third son and heir designate to North Korean supreme leader Kim Jong-il.”
Before he fled south in the spring of 2009, Rim belonged to the North Korean elite, albeit in the middle ranks. He said he had an intimate knowledge of North Korea’s mysterious decision-making process.
“The third Kim grew up with the idea that in order to establish himself he had to do something that neither his father nor his grand-father (founder of the dynasty) had ever done, namely attack helpless civilians to show how brutal he is.”
Contrary to established wisdom, the “decision to make him the leader was taken years ago. Now he must show that he is worthy of it,” Rim said.