South Korea gives military leeway to answer the North

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SEOUL, South Korea -- South Korean President Park Geun-hye on Monday ordered the country's military to deliver a strong and immediate response to any North Korean provocation, the latest turn in a war of words that has become a test of resolve for the relatively unproven leaders in both the North and South.

"I consider the current North Korean threats very serious," Ms. Park told the South's generals. "If the North attempts any provocation against our people and country, you must respond strongly at the first contact with them, without any political consideration. As top commander of the military, I trust your judgment in the face of North Korea's unexpected surprise provocation," she said.

Since Kim Jong Un took power in late 2011 after the death of his father, Kim Jong Il, the North has taken a series of provocative steps and amplified threats against Washington and Seoul to much louder and more menacing levels. The North has launched a three-stage rocket, tested a nuclear device and threatened to hit major U.S. cities with nuclear-armed ballistic missiles. And Kim Jong Un has declared that the Korean Peninsula has reverted to a "state of war." At the same time, there are signs that he is interested in turning his attention to the economy, including the promotion of economic technocrat Pak Pong-ju to a key post.

Ms. Park's comments stand in contrast to the usually dismissive tone South Korean leaders take toward the North's threats and reflect the criticism aimed at her predecessor and fellow conservative, Lee Myung-bak, when the South was seen as not retaliating decisively in 2010, after North Korea aimed an artillery barrage at a South Korean island, killing four people.

Analysts have been weighing whether the North's intensifying threats -- most judged to be hollow, given the limits of the North's arsenal -- simply continue the North's longstanding practice of bolstering domestic support and trying to badger other nations into supplying aid.

Mr. Kim's decision to launch the rocket in December and detonate a nuclear device last month followed the North's frustration, analysts said, that its strategy of threats and provocations against Washington and Seoul seemed less effective recently. Instead, the allies spearheaded more U.N. sanctions.

The sanctions coincided with the allies' joint military drills, during which Washington demonstrated its political resolve to defend South Korea by taking unusual steps of publicizing the training missions of nuclear-capable B-52 and B-2 bombers as well as F-22 stealth fighter jets.

For her part, Ms. Park must stand up to the North's growing nuclear threat while seeking to defuse tensions. Her election campaign last year focused on a promise not to be blackmailed by the North, a popular conservative stance in the past few years.

Since the North's 2010 attack on Yeonpyeong Island, the South has amended its military's rules of engagement to allow front-line units to respond more quickly, not wasting precious minutes waiting for permission from Seoul. Under Ms. Park, the South's military has declared that, if provoked, its retaliation would a "thousandfold, 10-thousandfold."



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