SEOUL (Reuters) - South Korean President Lee Myung-bak called for national solidarity on Monday against military aggression by the North, saying Pyongyang looks for division in the South as an opportunity to strike.
Lee has toughened his language against the North after two attacks this year that raised tension on the Korean peninsula to the highest since the 1950-53 Korean War, leading some analysts to say the chance of a wider military conflict is now greater than ever.
In the latest rhetorical sparring, the North last week threatened a nuclear “sacred war” and Lee vowed “a merciless counterattack” against any fresh North Korean attacks as rare large-scale military drills in the South kept tensions high.
“We can’t afford to have division of you against me in the face of national security, because what’s at stake is our very lives and the survival of this nation,” Lee said in a national radio address.
Lee said it was divided public opinion in the wake of the North’s submarine attack on one of South Korea’s navy ships in March, killing 46 sailors, that prompted Pyongyang to bombard a South Korean island near disputed sea border last month, killing four people. North Korea denies attacking the naval vessel.
“It is when we show solidarity as one that the North dares not challenge us. Their will to challenge breaks.”
Lee took office in 2008 and ended a decade of free-flowing economic aid given to the impoverished neighbor by his two liberal predecessors despite acts of violence against the South.
But he has come under criticism for being indecisive and ineffective. Critics have said he has little to show for his hard line.
Analysts said the frequency and severity of North Korea’s attacks have pushed Lee against a political wall and he has little choice but to order a harsh retaliation against Pyongyang which could spark a wider military conflict.
North Korea has offered to readmit U.N. inspectors to its nuclear installations, prompting speculation that six-party talks aimed at ending its nuclear program could resume next year.
But the United States, South Korea and Japan, involved in the talks, are seeking proof of commitment from the North which walked out of the talks two years ago.
Reporting by Jack Kim; Editing by Nick Macfie