SEOUL, South Korea — President Lee Myung-bak's choice for new defense minister outlined a tough new military policy toward North Korea on Friday, saying South Korean jets will bomb the North if it stages another attack like last week's deadly artillery barrage.
Lee's government is suffering intense criticism that its response to North Korea's Nov. 23 shelling of a South Korean island was weak, and over the stunning revelation that the South's spy chief dismissed information in August indicating the North might attack the front-line island of Yeonpyeong.
Lee's nominee, Kim Kwan-jin, told a parliamentary confirmation hearing that North Korean aggression will result in airstrikes. He said South Korea will use all its combat capabilities to retaliate.
"In case the enemy attacks our territory and people again, we will thoroughly retaliate to ensure that the enemy cannot provoke again," Kim said. The hearing is a formality as South Korea's National Assembly does not have the power to reject Lee's appointment.
Kim said it will be difficult for North Korea to conduct a full-scale war because of its weak economy and worries over the success of a plan to transfer power from leader Kim Jong Il to his young, untested son, Kim Jong Un.
Despite the bold declarations, questions have been raised about Lee's readiness — and even willingness — to stand up to the North. The president has been criticized for leading a military whose response to the attack was seen as too slow and too weak. The North fired 170 rounds, compared with 80 returned by South Korea.
Satellite photos showed only about 10 South Korean rounds landed near North Korea's army barracks along the west coast, according to the office of lawmaker Kwon Young-se, who said he saw the images provided Thursday by the National Intelligence Service.
Also Friday, South Korea's Yonhap news agency reported that North Korea has boosted the number of multiple-launch rockets capable of hitting Seoul. Yonhap, citing an unidentified South Korean military source, said North Korea's rockets have increased by 100 to about 5,200. The South Korean Joint Chiefs of Staff said it could not confirm the report because it involves military intelligence.
Yonhap also reported the Defense Ministry said planned live-fire drills on Yeonpyeong could occur by the end of this year.
Kim and other senior South Korean officials have warned the North will likely strike again. Kim said Friday that North Korea's leadership and military are South Korea's "main enemy."
China, which is North Korea's only major ally, has pressed for an emergency meeting of the six nations that previously negotiated over the North's nuclear program: the two Koreas, China, Russia, Japan and the United States.
North Korea walked away from the six-party disarmament-for-aid talks in April 2009 but has said it now wants to restart them. Washington, Tokyo and Seoul are wary of talking with the North, and their top diplomats planned to meet in Washington on Monday to plot a strategy on dealing with the country.Comment on this story
Although it won't be part of that meeting, China said Thursday it would keep a "close watch" on the talks and sounded upbeat about what they could achieve.
Chinese Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Jiang Yu said in a statement that China hoped the meeting would "ease tensions and promote dialogue." She said she also hoped the three countries would consider China's proposal for the emergency six-nation consultations. Earlier Thursday, Jiang said that Russia had expressed interest.
Meanwhile, President Lee said he believes there are signs of change in North Korea, citing the presence of private markets and a growing number of defections to South Korea.
"What should be noted is the change of the North Korean people rather than the change of its leaders," Lee said in comments on the presidential website.