South Korean President Park Geun-hye vowed “strong retaliation” on Monday to any provocation by North Korea after Pyongyang declared it was formally at war with Seoul.
In a meeting with senior military officials and Defence Minister Kim Kwan-jin, Park said she took the near-daily stream of bellicose threats emanating from the North “very seriously”.
“I believe that we should make a strong and immediate retaliation without any other political considerations if (the North) stages any provocation against our people,” she said.
Park’s strong words are a departure from the country’s previous stance on threats from the North, when officials have played down the prospect of any attack.
Park, a conservative who had advocated cautious engagement with the North during her election campaign, has taken a more hardline position since assuming office in February, shortly after the North conducted its third nuclear test.
Military tensions between the two neighbours have been running high for weeks, with the North stepping up its hostile rhetoric against Seoul and Washington.
In protest at joint South Korean-US military drills, North Korea last month declared it was ripping up the armistice that ended the 1950-53 Korean war void and threatened a “pre-emptive nuclear strike” on South Korean and US targets.
On Saturday, it announced that it had formally entered into a “state of war” with South Korea.
Seoul and Washington have warned of severe repercussions in the event of any aggression, with the US deploying nuclear capable B-52 and B-2 stealth bombers, as well as F-22 stealth fighters over South Korea as a “deterrence”.
The advanced, radar-evading F-22 Raptors were deployed to Osan Air Base, the main US Air Force base in South Korea, from Japan to support ongoing bilateral exercises, the US military command in South Korea said in a statement that urged North Korea to restrain itself.
“[North Korea) will achieve nothing by threats or provocations, which will only further isolate North Korea and undermine international efforts to ensure peace and stability in Northeast Asia,” the statement said.
Sabre-rattling on the Korean peninsula drew a plea for peace from Pope Francis, who in his first Easter Sunday address called for a diplomatic solution to the crisis on the Korean peninsula.
“Peace in Asia, above all on the Korean peninsula: may disagreements be overcome and a renewed spirit of reconciliation grow,” he said, speaking in Italian.
Tensions have been high since the North’s young new leader, Kim Jong-un, ordered a nuclear weapons test in February, breaching UN sanctions and ignoring warnings from North Korea’s closest ally, China, not to do so.