South Korea Warns Of Consequences For Aggression

South Korean President Lee Myung-bak (right) and U.S. Gen. Walter Sharp

South Korean President Lee Myung-bak (right) was joined by U.S. Gen. Walter Sharp, commander of American forces in Korea, during a visit to a U.S. base in Seoul as the two countries take part in joint military exercises. Kim Yong-wi/Presidential Blue House/AFP/Getty Images hide caption

itoggle caption Kim Yong-wi/Presidential Blue House/AFP/Getty Images

South Korean President Lee Myung-bak took responsibility for failing to protect his country against attack and threatened retaliation against any further provocation by North Korea.

Lee, making his first public statement since the North shelled Yeonpyeong island a week ago, expressed remorse for the deaths of two South Korean marines and two civilians and called the attack "a crime against humanity."

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"If the North commits any additional provocations against the South, we will make sure that it pays a dear price without fail," he warned during Monday's televised speech from the presidential Blue House in Seoul.

Minutes after the national address, Pyongyang renewed its own threat to attack, calling ongoing U.S.-South Korean military exercises in the Yellow Sea another grave military provocation.

In a sign of disarray hours after Lee vowed to get tough on the North, South Korea's military announced provocative new artillery drills on Yeonpyeong Island, then immediately postponed them Monday. Similar live-fire maneuvers by Southern troops last week triggered the North's bombardment that decimated parts of the border-zone island and drew return fire in a clash that set the region on edge.

Lee has come under withering criticism for what opponents have called lapses in South Korea's response to the attack. Lee has replaced his defense minister, ordered reinforcements for the 4,000 troops on Yeonpyeong and four other Yellow Sea islands and upgraded rules of engagement.

In his speech, Lee made no mention of China's offer to broker talks between the Koreas. Pyongyang's closest ally made the offer Sunday during a hastily arranged news conference.

"I would like to stress that although the proposed consultations do not mean the resumption of the six-party talks, we do hope they will help create conditions for the relaunch of the six-party talks," China's deputy foreign minister, Wu Dawei, said through an interpreter.

Japan responded that it will not attend such talks, according to a Kyodo news agency report citing the country's chief spokesman. South Korea said it would consider the proposal very cautiously. Meanwhile, a U.S. spokesman said Pyongyang needs to take clear steps to demonstrate a change in behavior.

China has so far failed to condemn North Korea's attack. But intense international pressure has produced a flurry of diplomacy: Beijing has sent a senior official to meet with Lee and is preparing to receive North Korea's parliamentary chief Tuesday.

Some experts dismiss China's call as a face-saving measure. But Zhu Feng of Peking University says it represents a change in policy.

"Such an emergency call for consultation shows Beijing's new activism," Zhu said. "I also see some sort of Chinese dilemma. We are always embarrassed by some sort of failed balance between maintaining our traditional relations with Pyongyang, and how to address the very important concern about security and stability to South Korea, U.S. and the international community."

Others, however, believe calls for Beijing to rein in Pyongyang are little more than wishful thinking.

"I think we tend to exaggerate China's influence over North Korea in order to rationalize our own inactivity. No country can have much of an influence on the domestic politics of an ultranationalist state," said North Korea expert Brian Myers of Dongseo University in South Korea.

As the U.S. aircraft carrier George Washington takes part in massive military exercises with South Korea, it is interesting to note that China hasn't protested more. Beijing was livid earlier this year when such exercises were suggested.

China's relative silence — coming against a backdrop of growing nationalism — speaks volumes, according to Zhu.

"My interpretation is that it's some sort of signaling: If North Korea will continue to provoke so very recklessly, then Beijing will not show any support," he said.

Inside China, the voices of discontent are growing. Some commentators are openly suggesting that North Korea's erratic actions have canceled out its use as a buffer zone for China. But Pyongyang has crossed red line after red line without losing Chinese support — and no one is prepared to guess where Beijing's bottom line might be.

Doualy Xaykaothao in Seoul and NPR's Louisa Lim in Beijing contributed to this report, which also contains material from The Associated Press.

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