News / Asia

South Korea Renews Harsh Rhetoric Against North

South Korea's President Lee Myung-bak (file photo)
South Korea's President Lee Myung-bak (file photo)

South Korea's President Lee Myung-bak renewed harsh rhetoric about North Korea - words that are likely not to be well received in Pyongyang, nor by those in Seoul who desire a softer approach to the communist state.

In an interview with National Public Radio of the United States, President Lee defended the country's National Security Law, increasingly being used to arrest those who possess or disseminate North Korean propaganda. Critics say it stifles free speech, but the president says the law is necessary.

"You have to always remember the very special and unique circumstances in which Korea is in today," Lee noted. "We have been facing for the last 60-plus years one of the world's most well-armed and most belligerent countries. And if you consider that fact, and if you are someone living in such a country every day, then you will understand the need to have such laws that will allow us to maintain our way of life."

The president’s description of the north as “one of the world’s most well-armed and most belligerent countries” worries Bruce Bennett, a senior defense analyst at Rand Corporation, a think tank that consults for the United States government.

Bennett says South Korea can best counter North Korea's "vicious propaganda" by not engaging in an exchange of name calling.

"The president apparently made a mistake. I'm sorry for him in that situation," Bennett said. "There is certain truth to what he said and so it's kind of hard to say he did a bad thing in that regard."

The two Koreas fought to a stalemate a devastating three-year civil war in the early 1950's. No peace treaty has ever been signed.

Inter-Korean relations worsened last year with two attacks blamed on the North killing 50 South Koreans, most of them sailors.

After the shelling of Yeonpyeong island, near disputed waters, in November of last year, Seoul and Pyongyang sharpened their rhetoric towards each other.

North Korea has repeatedly termed the South Korean president a "traitor" who is a "puppet" of the United States and characterized Lee as "the worst man in history."

For his part, President Lee, who can not run for re-election next year when his five-year term ends, has refrained from any personal verbal attacks on North Korean leader Kim Jong-il. But after being criticized for a slow and muted response to the artillery attack the island on the Yellow Sea, Lee warned North Korea  any further provocations would be met with "stern, strong responses."

Steve Herman

A veteran journalist, Steve Herman is VOA's Southeast Asia Bureau Chief and Correspondent, based in Bangkok.

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