Military Alert after North Warning

Just before stepping down from his post, former Defense Minister Kim Jang-soo warned military officers to be on alert for a possible confrontation with North Korea this year.

According to military sources, Kim, who left office last week, warned key officers to be ready for trouble with the North, as Pyongyang’s anger rises over the latest South Korea-U.S. joint military exercises.

Perhaps responding to the change of administration in the South, North Korea has turned up the rhetorical heat on its denunciation of exercises between South Korea and the United States, saying it would “respond with all necessary measures” against what it described as military provocation.

“Kim asked key military officials to be fully prepared for a possible confrontation,” said the source. Kim, a military officer for more than three decades, spent most of his career as a strategist. He is the former chief of operations for the Joint Chiefs of Staff and deputy commander of the Korea-U.S. Combined Forces Command.

Indeed, the military has been on alert as the North thundered against the latest Key Resolve exercise involving U.S. and South Korean forces. The exercises are designed to heighten readiness in the event of an invasion.

North Korea’s Foreign Ministry spokesman described the military operation as a “rehearsal for a nuclear attack on North Korea,” in an interview with North Korea’s state-run Korea Central News Agency yesterday.

“Our citizens and military are closely watching U.S. military moves that pose a significant threat to our republic’s sovereignty,” the spokesman said. “We will take all necessary measures.”

Tens of thousands of U.S. and Korean troops began the six-day war exercises Sunday.

In an indication of Seoul’s increasing edginess, new defense chief Lee Sang-hee on Saturday visited a memorial to sailors killed in a 2002 naval clash with North Korea in the Yellow Sea. Yesterday, Lee visited guard posts on the border with North Korea, urging soldiers to “maintain perfect operational readiness.”

“The commander on site should be able to check the situation if a military provocation [by North Korea] takes place,” Lee said during the visit.

It has been a regular pattern for North Korea to initiate military action or provocations towards South Korea whenever a new administration takes office, said a senior Defense Ministry official. “We are preparing for a possible threat.”

By Kim Min-seok JoongAng Ilbo/Jung Ha-won Staff Reporter []

(Posted 3/6/08)