Seoul mulls new command for West Sea defense
By Jung Sung-ki
A fresh series of explosion sounds were heard around noon near Yeonpyeong Island, heightening tension in the West Seas. The Joint Chiefs of Staff (JCS) later said the sounds appeared to be related to North Korea’s artillery drill within the North’s territory.
There were sounds of at least six explosions between 12:20 p.m. and 3 p.m., but no shells landed in waters on either side of the sea border, JCS spokesman Col. Lee Bung-woo told reporters.
The North’s artillery drill comes as South Korea prepares to contain any further provocations. The government is considering creating a new integrated command of marines, ground troops, sailors and airmen for the defense of islands near the tense western sea border with North Korea, a government source said Friday.
The idea for a division-level integrated command was reported to President Lee Myung-bak, the source said.
The move comes amid growing calls to boost the country’s military capability on the islands near the Northern Limit Line (NLL), the flash point for inter-Korean conflicts.
“In the aftermath of the Yeonpyeong Island attack, consensus has been built among government and military officials to augment troops and weapons on the West Sea islands,” the source said on condition of anonymity. “The creation of a West Sea Command is part of such efforts, but the idea has yet to be tabled.”
On Thursday, President Lee ordered an increase in manpower and weapons systems for five islands near the sea border, following North Korea’s deadly attack Tuesday.
Under the idea, the number of troops on the islands will double to 12,000 with field commanders granted greater authority to respond to North Korean provocation. Currently, there are about 4,000 troops of the 6th Marine Brigade on Baengnyeong Island and 1,000 others on Yeonpyeong.
The North Korean navy is known to have deployed some 20,000 to 30,000 forces in the western coastal region. It is also believed to have deployed at least 1,000 artillery pieces capable of causing damage to South Korean islands.
In Tuesday’s attack, the North used 76.2mm field guns and 122mm multiple rocket launchers to fire about 170 shells at residential areas as well as a marine unit on Yeonpyeong Island.
Other North Korean artillery systems include 170mm “Koksan” guns with a range of 54 kilometers, 60-kilometer-range 240mm multiple rocket launchers, 130mm guns with a range of 27 kilometers, and 152mm artillery pieces with a range of 17 to 24 kilometers.
The North is also said to have deployed ground-to-sea missiles, including the Samlet and Silkworm with ranges of 83 to 95 kilometers, on its western coasts.
The South deployed K9 self-propelled howitzers with a maximum range of 40 kilometers, 155mm towed artillery pieces, 105mm towed guns, 90mm coastal guns, 81mm mortars, 20mm Vulcan cannons and M-48 main battle tanks.
Meanwhile, the U.S. Navy’s nuclear-powered aircraft carrier George Washington is to arrive in the West Sea this weekend to join a massive naval exercise with South Korean forces.
The participation of the U.S. aircraft carrier strike group, which includes 75 aircraft and 6,000 sailors, was agreed upon by U.S. and South Korean leaders Nov. 24.
President Barack Obama talked with his South Korean counterpart, Lee Myung-bak, for 30 minutes by phone and decided to dispatch the 97,000-ton aircraft carrier from the U.S. 7th Fleet, according to the White House. The carrier left its home base in Yokosuka, Japan, for the West Sea to take part in drills scheduled for Nov. 28 to Dec.1.
Along with the George Washington and its embarked carrier air wing, the statement said U.S. Navy ships scheduled to participate include the guided-missile cruiser Cowpens and the guided-missile destroyers Stethem, Fitzgerald and Lassen.
Seoul’s Joint Chiefs of Staff said the ROK Navy will deploy destroyers, patrol vessels, frigates, support ships and anti-submarine aircraft without specifying how many personnel or what type of ships would be involved in the four-day exercise.
South Korean and U.S. officials said next week’s exercise is one in a series of drills announced in July in response to the sinking of the ROK Navy frigate Cheonan in March. The ship was sunk by a torpedo fired from a North Korean submarine, a Seoul-led multinational team of investigators concluded.
Pyongyang denies the allegation.