Ahn Young-joon, Associated Press
A tourist hangs on a ribbon with messages wishing for reunification of the two Koreas at a barded wire fence at the at the Imjingak Pavilion near the border village of Panmunjom in Paju, South Korea, Friday, Dec. 24, 2010. One month after a deadly exchange of artillery fire, the two Koreas ramped up their rhetoric, with South Korea's president pledging unsparing retaliation if attacked again and a top North Korean official threatening a 'sacred' nuclear war if provoked.
SEOUL, South Korea — South Korea's president vowed relentless retaliation against North Korea if provoked again, saying Monday he is not afraid of war with the communist North.
The two Koreas have ramped up their rhetoric since North Korea shelled front-line Yeonpyeong Island near the tense western sea border last month, killing four South Koreans. Both sides accuse the other of triggering the Nov. 23 exchange of artillery.
On Monday, President Lee Myung-bak used his regular radio address to vow to get tougher with any new provocation by North Korea.
"We have now been awakened to the realization that war can be prevented and peace assured only when such provocations are met with a strong response," Lee said. "Fear of war is never helpful in preventing war."
He said South Korea's military "must respond relentlessly when they come under attack."
Lee urged South Koreans to be more united on national security because North Korea tries to take advantage of any division in public opinions in the South.
"There can be no difference between you and me when it comes to national security because our lives and the survival of the nation depend on it," he said. "They always have their eyes open to take advantage of any opportunity if they detect any divisiveness in our minds and thoughts."
South Korea has staged a series of military drills — including one on Yeonpyeong Island on Dec. 20 — in a show of force against the North since the artillery bombardment. The South also has threatened airstrikes if hit again, has ordered more troops on front-line islands and is pushing for upgraded rules of engagement to allow for a more forceful response to future provocations.
North Korea, for its part, has also kept up rhetoric as it marks the 19th anniversary of leader Kim Jong Il's appointment as the country's supreme military commander. Kim's military chief threatened last week to launch a "sacred" nuclear war against the South.
The North's main newspaper warned Monday that South Korea's recent exercises are "reckless military provocation" that could lead the South down a path to self-destruction.
"There is limit to our patience," said the Rodong Sinmun commentary carried by the official Korean Central News Agency.
The provocations may continue unabated into 2011, said a report issued by the state-run Institute for National Security Strategy in Seoul.
North Korea may invade Yeonpyeong and other Yellow Sea border islands next year as part of belligerence aimed at rallying support among military generals during the transfer of power from Kim to his third son, Kim Jong Un, it said.
The son, who is in his 20s, was promoted to four-star general and appointed to key political posts this year in his formal debut as his father's heir apparent.
Earlier Monday, Pyongyang's state TV broadcast a lengthy documentary chronicling leader Kim's recent public activities, including his attendance at the ruling Workers' Party convention in late September and a massive military parade in October.
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Several shots zoomed in on the son, dressed in a blue civilian suit with his hair slicked back, raising his red Workers' Party membership card during the party meeting and clapping his hands at the military parade as troops marched past.
The two Koreas still technically remain at war because their 1950s conflict ended with an armistice, not a peace treaty. In recent years, several bloody naval skirmishes have occurred near the western sea border drawn by the U.N. at the close of the Korean War and disputed by North Korea.