SEOUL, South Korea — South Korea's president vowed Tuesday to turn five islands along the tense border with North Korea into "military fortresses" with jobs for permanent civilian communities, including those destroyed in a North Korean artillery attack.
President Lee Myung-bak's comments came as the chairman of the U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff flew to Seoul to give reassurances of the U.S. commitment to the country's defense, and as the top diplomats from the U.S., Japan and South Korea gathered in Washington in a show of unity. North Korea was warned to stop its "provocative and belligerent" behavior and abandon its nuclear arms program.
Tensions are still high on the Korean peninsula following the Nov. 23 North Korean shelling of Yeonpyeong Island, a tiny enclave of military bases and fishing communities along the Koreas' disputed western sea border. The attack killed two South Korean Marines and two civilians, and reduced many homes and shops to charred rubble.
Lee, in comments posted on his presidential website, said he wanted to "gradually push to make (the five front-line Yellow Sea islands) military fortresses" and to create jobs so local residents can continue to live on all of the islands.
Most of the 1,300 civilians on Yeonpyeong Island have fled, with many now living in a public bathhouse that has been converted into a refugee center in the port city of Incheon.
Lee has been criticized for a military response to the shelling that was deemed too slow and too weak. He has ordered reinforcements for the thousands of South Korean troops stationed on Yeonpyeong and the four other border islands, as well as top-level weaponry and upgraded rules of engagement.
Even while promising more fortifications on the islands, the South Korean government has worked to show worried citizens that it will also help the islanders. Many Yeonpyeong residents have said in emotional TV and newspaper interviews that they don't know whether they want to go back to their villages.
Seoul has announced 30 billion won ($27 million) to help rebuild Yeonpyeong. The city of Incheon, which has jurisdiction over the island, has requested money from the central government to modernize shelters and buy equipment, including new boats for fishermen.
South Korea on Tuesday continued previously scheduled weeklong artillery exercises. However, no drills were happening along the disputed sea border because of bad weather, military officials said, speaking on condition of anonymity according to internal rules.
North Korea has blamed South Korean military drills conducted on Yeonpyeong on Nov. 23 for its artillery fire. The North disputes the maritime border drawn in 1953 by U.N. forces and considers the waters around Yeonpyeong, which lies just seven miles (11 kilometers) from its shores, its territory.
The North Korean leader, Kim Jong Il, meanwhile, inspected an iron and steel complex and a coal mining machine complex, North Korea's official Korean Central News Agency reported Monday. Kim has made a series of trips to factories since the island attack, according to the South Korean Unification Ministry, which handles inter-Korean affairs.
In Washington, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton met Monday with Japanese Foreign Minister Seiji Maehara and South Korean Foreign Minister Kim Sung-hwan to discuss the island shelling and Pyongyang's announced expansion of a uranium enrichment capability that the United States and others see as a defiant and dangerous step.
North Korea has said it wants to restart international talks on receiving aid in return for dismantling its nuclear program, but Clinton made clear that Washington, Tokyo and Seoul view a resumption of talks as tantamount to rewarding North Korea for behaving badly.
"All agree that North Korea's provocative and belligerent behavior jeopardizes peace and stability in Asia," Clinton said.
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