SEOUL (Reuters) – South Korea on Friday threatened to bomb North Korea if it tries a repeat of last week's attack, raising its rhetoric after the United States warned of an "immediate threat" from Pyongyang.
Kim Kwan-jin, a retired general, was speaking at a parliamentary meeting confirming him as new defense minister, a day after U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said North Korea threatened the region and the world.
"If there are further provocations, we will definitely use aircraft to bomb North Korea," Kim said when asked how he would respond to another attack after last week's North Korean bombardment of an island near their disputed border, killing two South Korean marines and two civilians.
The North alone has more than 5,000 multiple-launch rockets pointed at the capital Seoul which, with its satellite cities, is home to some 25 million people. South Korea has about 490 combat aircraft.
For nearly 60 years, the two Koreas have faced each other across one of the world's most heavily armed borders. They have never signed a peace treaty to end the 1950-53 Korean War.
Recent opinion polls show that most South Koreans think Seoul should have retaliated with more venom last week, prompting an increase in tough rhetoric from the government.
But, in a sign any escalation was being kept in check, a joint industrial complex shared by the two Koreas in the North was still operating, with 200 South Koreans crossing the border on Friday.
And North Korea's sharp rhetoric has noticeably waned over the past two days.
The foreign ministers of the United States, Japan and South Korea, long-time allies, meet in Washington on Monday to discuss North Korea.
North Korean ally China, pushing for an emergency meeting of the six countries involved in denuclearization talks, is not going. That means the discussions in Washington have little chance of breaking the impasse within the international community on a common approach to deal with the mounting tension on the Korean peninsula.
Defense Minister Kim said the attack led to the most serious crisis since the Korean War, but he saw little chance strong retaliation from the South would lead to a full-blown war.
"It will also be difficult for North Korea to conduct a full-scale war because there are some elements of insecurity in the country, such as the national economy and power transfer."
South Korea's foreign ministry said a joint statement criticizing North Korea's attack was being prepared. Japan's Mainichi newspaper said it would call on North Korea to stop provocative actions and enrichment of uranium -- a second way for it to produce material for nuclear weapons.
U.S. and Japanese forces began maneuvers on Friday, adding to tension. The exercises will involve about 44,500 personnel.
Japanese Defense Minister Toshimi Kitazawa described the maneuvers as "normal training" held every two years.
"This is not something that is targeted at any particular country."
Clinton said North Korea posed an immediate threat to the region, particularly South Korea and Japan.
"It poses a medium-term threat if it were to collapse to China, because of refugees and other instability. And it poses a long-term threat to the entire world, because of its nuclear program, and its export of weapons around the world," she said in the Kyrgyz capital Bishkek, according to a transcript released by the State Department.
Later, speaking in Manama, she said North Korea and Iran could both spark a regional arms race through their pursuit of illicit nuclear programs.
The United States has been pushing China, North Korea's only major ally, to bring the reclusive country to heel. China has refused to blame North Korea for last week's attack, or for the earlier sinking of a South Korean naval vessel. A team of international investigators said the North torpedoed the ship.
China, which said it would not play favorites in the dispute, has proposed emergency talks of the two Korea, China, Japan, Russia and the United States. Only Russia has given its support.
(Writing by Nick Macfie; Additional reporting by Kiyoshi Takenaka in Tokyo, editing by Jonathan Thatcher)