The South Korean military had been under heavy criticism for its slow reaction to armed provocations by North Korea four years ago, leading to the resignation of then-Defense Minister Kim Tae-young.
Skeptics say the nominee, then the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, will face harsh criticism at the confirmation hearing for his role in commanding the military at the time.
Yeonpyeongdo Island, one of the five islands located near the western maritime border with the North, was a target of Pyongyang’s deadly bombardment only months after North Korea’s torpedoing of a South Korean warship. It was the first attack on the South’s territory since the 1950-53 Korean War.
The South Korean military, however, came under fire for its initial responses to the provocation, which were deemed not prompt or strong enough. The former minister Kim and other military leaders were blasted for firing back 13 minutes after the North began the shelling and using K-9 self-propelled artillery instead of more powerful weapons.
They claimed that the South Korean military’s response was “weak,” noting that it fired only 80 shells while the North fired some 170 rounds. Of the shells fired by the North, about 80 landed on the border island. The bombing destroyed more than 50 buildings and facilities. Hundreds of islanders evacuated and stayed in temporary shelters on the mainland for months.
Following a series of North Korean provocations, Seoul adopted a proactive deterrence strategy and vowed to launch counterstrikes at not only the origin of the provocation but also forces supporting it and its commanders. But questions have been raised over whether Han, who led the South Korean military at the time, is qualified for the ministerial post, which would give him great responsibility in dealing with increasing North Korean threats.
Amid growing criticism, Han countered the claims.
“At the time, I directed the military to employ air power to deal with additional provocations, along with sufficient counterstrikes,” said Han. “Since then, the military has adopted a proactive deterrence concept to strongly respond to future provocations in light of self-defense.”
The ex-JCS chairman said he would elaborate at the confirmation hearing.
“(Response toward the North’s) shelling of Yeonpyeongdo Island was a (military) operation, so the military has its position, and I also have something to say,” Han told reporters at the Ministry of Defense on Monday.
When asked how he would react if North Korea carried out another provocative attack, Han said he would maintain the military’s hard-line defense policy.
“A strict and ruthless response toward the enemy’s provocation is the principle of the military,” he said. “I will, of course, keep that basis.”
President Park Geun-hye nominated Han as new defense minister on Sunday. Han 63, replaces Kim Kwan-jin who was named to lead the presidential National Security Office on the same day. Han is deemed a top expert in military policy and strategy.
By Cho Chung-un (firstname.lastname@example.org)