By Kim Deok-hyun
SEOUL, Nov. 24 (Yonhap) -- Defense Minister Kim Tae-young said Wednesday his military will toughen its policy on the use of force against North Korea, amid mounting criticism over what many lawmakers say was an improper and hesitant response to the North's artillery attack on Tuesday.
Lawmakers from both ruling and opposition parties grilled the defense minister during a parliamentary session over the military's failure to have its fighter jets strike back immediately, despite the fact that the North's bombardment on a populated South Korean island was a military provocation.
"We will toughen our rules of engagement to allow the military to strongly respond to" any North Korean provocations, Kim told lawmakers.
In mid-afternoon on Tuesday, North Korea fired about 170 rounds of artillery on Yeonpyeong Island and the surrounding waters near the tense Yellow Sea border, with some 90 shells landing on the island. The attack resulted in the deaths of two marines and two civilians. Fifteen marines and at least three civilians were wounded.
About 13 minutes after the North's attacks, South Korea returned fire with some 80 cannons from K-9 155mm self-propelled howitzers and scrambled six fighter jets. The fighter jets, however, didn't engage because they need approval from the presidential office before unleashing counter attacks.
"It was insufficient for the military to strike back with only 80 cannons from K-9 self-propelled howitzers," Rep. Yoo Seong-min of the ruling Grand National Party said, adding that such howitzers are inappropriate to destroy the North's coastline artillery hidden in caves.
Yoo also raised the need to change the current rules of engagement for fighter jets to immediately launch counter attacks in case of a military provocation by North Korea. Other lawmakers criticized the military for not complying with the current rules that require it to return fire with twice as many shells as the North fired.
"At that time, the fighter jets were deployed to launch counter attacks if North Korea fires more artillery," Kim said, adding his military is reviewing changes to the rules in the direction that would require fighter jets to immediately launch an air-to-ground strike.
Kim said he will make a visit to the border island Thursday to check the situation there.
Some lawmakers criticized the military for showing what they called hesitation in returning fire against the North's attack. It took around 13 minutes for South Korean forces on Yeonpyeong to strike back with their K-9 self-propelled guns.
But Minister Kim defended his military's response, insisting the front-line unit on Yeonpyeong acted promptly in response within the short time, given the chain of command.
"The counter-strike after 13 minutes was possible because they were well-trained," Kim said.
The minister said he would deploy more artillery on the island.
"We have six K-9 self-propelled guns at Yeonpyeong Island and we plan to deploy more of them," Kim said.
"Also, we will replace 105-mm howitzers on Yeonpyeong with 150-mm self-propelled guns, which have a longer shooting range," Kim told lawmakers.
Meanwhile, Kim said the North's bombardment on Yeonpyeong Island was probably a politically calculated provocation in part to help secure the ongoing succession of the North's leader-in-waiting, the youngest son of leader Kim Jong-il, South Korea's defense chief said Wednesday.
"Our judgment is that North Korea carried out the attack to consolidate the succession process in the country by showing off the leadership of Kim Jong-un," Defense Minister Kim Tae-young told lawmakers, referring to the communist state's heir apparent.
The North's shelling attack on Yeonpyeong Island came amid fresh fears over North Korea's claim of having a new uranium enrichment facility and just two months after a power transition in the communist regime became apparent with the debut of Kim Jong-un.
There have been concerns that North Korea could attempt to raise the prestige of its successor by making military provocations against South Korea.
"We judged that after revealing the new uranium enrichment facility on Nov. 12, North Korea made the artillery attack to give Kim Jong-un the status of a strong leader," the defense minister said during a parliament session.
The minister said his military is determined to "respond resolutely" if North Korea resumes shelling or makes any further provocations, reaffirming that Tuesday's attack was "pre-planned" and "intentional."
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