South Korean president vows to boost his nation's defense

SEOUL, South Korea -- South Korea's president compared a deadly North Korean artillery barrage to the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks on the United States, saying today that the South must strengthen defenses and cannot let the North "covet even an inch of our territory."

Lee Myung-bak, speaking to the country in a New Year's speech, said the Nov. 23 shelling of Yeonpyeong Island was a transformational event for South Korea. He vowed to hit back hard if attacked again, but he also opened the door for possible peace talks, saying South Korea has "both the will and the plan to drastically enhance economic cooperation" should the North show it is willing to fulfill past nuclear disarmament commitments. Still, the overwhelming focus of his speech was a tough promise to improve South Korea's defenses.

"The situation before and after the provocation against Yeonpyeong Island cannot be the same," Lee said. "Any provocation that would pose a threat to our lives and property will not be tolerated. Such provocations will be met with stern, strong responses."

Lee was severely criticized for responding too slowly and too weakly to the shelling near the Koreas' disputed western sea border -- the North's first attack on a civilian area since the 1950-1953 Korean War. His government has responded by replacing the defense chief, strengthening security and pushing to deploy additional troops and weaponry to Yeonpyeong, which lies just seven miles (11 kilometers) from North Korean shores.

After the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, the United States "went back to the drawing board to devise new security and national strategies, because the safety and security of its people had come under threat," Lee said.

"The shelling of Yeonpyeong Island also served as an opportunity for us to reflect on our security readiness and overhaul our defense posture," he said. "There cannot be any delay in establishing security measures."

Despite his strong words, Lee also said peace between the two Koreas is still possible. "The door for dialogue is still open," he said.

The North shelled Yeonpyeong Island, killing two civilians and two marines, after warning the South not to conduct live-fire drills there. North Korea claims the waters around Yeonpyeong as its own territory, refusing to recognize the maritime boundary drawn in 1953 by the United Nations without consulting with the North.

Lee's speech came two days after North Korea issued its own New Year's message. Pyongyang called for better ties and the resumption of joint projects with South Korea. It also reiterated its commitment to ridding the peninsula of atomic weapons and warned that a war would trigger a "nuclear holocaust."

Meanwhile, the United States, which has about 28,000 troops in the South, is pushing ahead with diplomacy meant to find a way to ease tensions.

U.S. President Barack Obama's top envoy on North Korea, Stephen Bosworth, and Sung Kim, the U.S. envoy to stalled nuclear disarmament talks, are to arrive in Seoul on Tuesday and then travel on to Beijing and Tokyo later this week. U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates is planning a visit to Seoul next week.

And on Jan. 19 Chinese President Hu Jintao will be feted in Washington by Obama with a state dinner. China is the North's only major ally and main benefactor, and the Hu-Obama meeting will be closely watched to see if any diplomatic breakthrough can be made.