SEOUL — President Lee Myung-bak's choice for new defense minister said Friday that South Korean jets will bomb North Korea if Pyongyang stages an attack similar to last week's deadly artillery barrage.
The tough words came as Lee's government suffered intense criticism that the response to the North's Nov. 23 shelling on a South Korean island was weak, and over a stunning revelation that the South's spy chief dismissed information in August indicating North Korea might attack the front-line island.
Lee's nominee, Kim Kwan-jin, told a parliamentary confirmation hearing that North Korean aggression will result in airstrikes. He said South Korea will use all its combat capabilities to retaliate.
"In case the enemy attacks our territory and people again, we will thoroughly retaliate to ensure that the enemy cannot provoke again," Kim said. The hearing is a formality as South Korea's National Assembly does not have the power to reject Lee's appointment.
Kim said it will be difficult for North Korea to conduct a full-scale war because of its weak economy and worries over the success of a plan to transfer power from leader Kim Jong Il to his young, untested son, Kim Jong Un.
Despite the bold declarations, questions have been raised about Lee's readiness -- and even willingness -- to stand up to the North. The president has been criticized for leading a military whose response to the attack was seen as too slow and too weak. The North fired 170 rounds, compared with 80 returned by South Korea.
Satellite photos showed only about 10 South Korean rounds landed near North Korea's army barracks along the west coast, according to the office of lawmaker Kwon Young-se, who said he saw the images provided Thursday by the National Intelligence Service.
Also Friday, South Korea's Yonhap news agency reported that North Korea has boosted the number of multiple-launch rockets capable of hitting Seoul. Yonhap, citing an unidentified South Korean military source, said North Korea's rockets have increased by 100 pieces to about 5,200.
The South Korean Joint Chiefs of Staff said it could not confirm the report because it involves military intelligence.
Senior South Korean officials have warned that the North will likely strike again.
South Korean military officials said Friday they will soon hold live-ammunition artillery drills near islands along the Koreas' disputed sea border, Yonhap reported.
China, which is North Korea's only major ally, has pressed for an emergency meeting of the six nations that previously negotiated over Pyongyang's nuclear program: the two Koreas, China, Russia, Japan and the United States.
North Korea walked away from the six-nation disarmament-for-aid talks in April 2009 but has said it now wants to restart them. Washington, Tokyo and Seoul are wary of talking with the North, and their top diplomats planned to meet in Washington on Monday to plot a strategy on dealing with the country.
Although it won't be part of that meeting, China said Thursday it would keep a "close watch" on the talks and sounded upbeat about what they could achieve.
"As the situation on the Korean peninsula is highly complicated and sensitive, we expect the meeting to ease tensions and promote dialogue, rather than heighten tensions and intensify confrontation," Chinese Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Jiang Yu said in a statement.
She said she also hoped the three countries would give "positive consideration" to China's proposal for emergency consultations among the participants in the six-party talks. Earlier Thursday, Jiang said that Russia had expressed interest.
On resumption of the nuclear negotiations, Seoul says North Korea must show real commitment to disarm. It has noted that Pyongyang has gone in the wrong direction with its revelation last month of a new uranium enrichment facility that would give it a second way to make nuclear bombs.