Division and tension as South Korea considers its tactics

South Korean marines stand beside the self-propelled surface to air missile system "Cheonma" on Baengnyeong island near the western maritime border between the two Koreas, 3 December 2010 There has been criticism of South Korean forces' readiness for, and handling of, the attack by the North on Yeonpyong island

These are uncertain days in South Korea. And into them has stepped retired general, Kim Kwan-jin: 61 years old, straight-talking and photogenic.

As he stood before parliament on Friday for his confirmation hearing as the country's new defence minister, his statements reflected how much things have changed here over the past 10 days.

In that time, two South Korean soldiers and two civilians have been killed by North Korean attacks on the island of Yeonpyeong. Gen Kim has described it as the most serious incident since the end of the Korean War more than half a century ago.

Reading the runes

It is the first time since then that civilians have been targeted. And the first time, too, that North Korea has struck at a populated island.

But despite his 40 years of military experience, Gen Kim's job is as much about reading the runes of Korean politics as about military strategy. Many South Koreans have been deeply shaken by the new style of attack.

South Korea's new Defence Minister Kim Kwan-jin speaks during a parliamentary confirmation hearing at the National Assembly in Seoul, South Korea, 3 December 2010 South Korea's straight-talking new Defence Minister Kim Kwan-jin

A week after his nomination, Gen Kim has already signalled a tougher approach to the country's northern neighbour, saying the South would respond with air strikes if North Korea launched a similar attack in the future.

He has also called for a review of South Korea's rules of engagement, giving more power to commanders on the ground to respond to attacks.

That would be quite a change from South Korea's current policy of "proportionate response" - responding to attacks from the North only with similar weapons, and on a similar scale, to avoid escalation.

During the Yeonpyeong incident, North Korea reportedly fired 170 shells while Southern forces fired 80. Satellite images seemed to show many of them falling far from their targets.

There were reports of equipment not working, of troops not fully prepared. Part of the problem, suggest some analysts, is that none of those currently serving in the military are old enough to remember this kind of active combat.

Criticism over the military's handling of the episode helped force the resignation of Gen Kim's predecessor, Kim Tae-young.

And he may not be the only one. Recent press reports have also pointed a finger at the country's spy chief - accusing him of ignoring intelligence reports earlier this year which suggested the North was preparing an attack.

As one newspaper succinctly put it this morning: "They knew it, and they blew it."

The new defence minister may have taken note. He has already signalled his support for naming North Korea as the country's "principal enemy" - a token gesture perhaps, but also an indication of the government's desire to respond to the public mood.

Too close for comfort

Not since the Korean War has this conflict produced civilian casualties, bombed out buildings and mass evacuations - all captured on the nightly news.

In the capital, Seoul, people have begun talking about where they would go in the event of an attack, or what action they would like the government to take.

South Korean military veterans burn a North Korean flag and portrait of Kim Il Sung, the late founder of North Korea, at a rally in Jecheon, South Korea, 3 December 2010 South Korean veterans have been expressing their anger over the attack

The city of 20 million people sits just 50km (31 miles) south of the Demilitarised Zone which divides the two countries. On the other side of that line, 5,000 North Korean rockets are aimed towards it.

That fact figures much more vividly in people's minds here than it did a month ago.

But it has also exposed deep divisions about who to blame for the rising tensions.

Many say the so-called Sunshine Policy of engagement with North Korea, favoured by previous administrations, has left the country weak; others that the current president's determination not to reward "bad behaviour" by the North is leading to new and dangerous levels of risk.

None of this makes an attack any more likely, but it does put the government under a new kind of pressure.

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