November 25, 2010 12:45
North Korea's artillery attack on Yeonpyeong Island has raised concerns that the South does not have the firepower needed to effectively defend its five islands off the west coast against the North's attacks. Military officers are criticizing top brass of failing to bolster defensive capabilities in the West Sea even though the area has become a powder keg with repeated North Korean provocations around the Northern Limit Line.
Defense Minister Kim Tae-young told the National Assembly's Defense Committee on Wednesday troops and armaments on Yeonpyeong and Baeknyeong islands "were deployed to respond to the threat of an amphibious landing by North Korean forces. Now an artillery battle has become the new threat, so we're reassessing the need to strengthen defenses."
The minister practically admitted that the military failed to respond to a new type of North Korean threat in the West Sea. Kim pledged to boost the number of K-9 self-propelled howitzers on the island from six to 12 and replace existing 105 mm towed howitzers with 155 mm self-propelled howitzers, which have a longer range and are capable of counterattacks against North Korean artillery positions.
"When it comes to defending the West Sea, it's true that the focus of our defensive posture was on thwarting a North Korean naval clash or preventing infiltration," a military source said. "I don't think we fully anticipated an artillery attack."
Lawmakers grilled the minister over the relatively weak fighting power of troops in an area as strategically important as the West Sea. North Korea's Fourth Army Corps, which is entrusted with guarding the West Sea, is headed by General Kim Kyok-sik, who commands tens of thousands of troops. In contrast, South Korea has only around 5,000 marines on Baeknyeong and Yeonpyeong islands. It is unclear whether South Korean troops could successfully defend the five West Sea islands if North Korea were to stage a massive attack.
In fact the military has been implementing reforms that weaken defense capabilities in the five West Sea islands. Since the Roh Moo-hyun administration, efforts were made to cut the Marine presence in the West Sea and 3,200 marines stationed in the area were to be moved elsewhere while the 6th brigade was to be shrunk down to a regiment.
"To my knowledge, discussions are under way to scrap the Marine troop cut plan. Now that the situation has become more tense, troop levels in the West Sea would need to be increased," said a Marine officer.
The North has deployed around 1,000 artillery pieces capable of firing 130 mm and 170 mm shells on major islands and coastal positions on the West Sea. In contrast, the only South Korean weapons in the West Sea capable of directly hitting North Korea are K-9 self-propelled howitzers with a range of 40 km, and 155 mm towed howitzers with a range of less than 20 km. There are six K-9 self-propelled howitzers each on Yeonpyeong and Baeknyeong islands, and 10 155 mm towed howitzers are stationed only on Baeknyeong Island.
- Copyright © Chosunilbo & Chosun.com