Yoon vows multiple-times stronger punishment in event of N.K. provocation

– President Yoon Suk Yeol vowed Tuesday to punish North Korea multiple times as hard in the event it carries out a provocation against South Korea, after North Korean leader Kim Jong-un called for defining South Korea as a “primary foe and invariable principal enemy.”

Kim issued the call during a parliamentary meeting Monday, saying the country should revise its constitution to codify the new definition of South Korea and the North’s commitment to “completely occupying” South Korean territory in the event of war.

“The current Republic of Korea government is different from any previous government,” Yoon said during a Cabinet meeting, referring to South Korea by its formal name. “Our military has an overwhelming response capability. … Should North Korea provoke us, we will punish them multiple times as hard.”

Tensions between the two Koreas run high as Pyongyang has fired artillery near the western sea border in recent weeks and launched an intermediate-range missile on Sunday in its first ballistic test of the year.

Referring to the North Korean statement, Yoon said Kim vowed not to recognize the Northern Limit Line (NLL), the de facto inter-Korean maritime border, carrying out a “political provocation” meant to divide South Korea and make its people anxious.

“The conventional disguised peace tactic that threatens with a choice between war and peace will not work anymore,” he said, in an apparent reference to the pro-reconciliation policy of his liberal predecessor, Moon Jae-in. “The fake peace that we earn by bowing to threats of provocation will only plunge our security into greater danger.”

The South Korean military reaffirmed its commitment to defending the NLL — the scene of a series of bloody naval clashes between the two Koreas. North Korea has never recognized the NLL, demanding that it be redrawn farther south.

“The NLL is a de facto maritime border, which our soldiers defended at the cost of numerous sacrifices. Our military remains firm on defending and upholding the NLL under any circumstances,” defense ministry spokesperson Jeon Ha-kyu said in a regular press briefing.

At the Cabinet meeting, Yoon called on the nation and government to come together as one to “defeat” the deceptive tactics and propaganda of the North Korean regime.

He also said North Korea’s recent definition of South-North relations as those between “hostile” nations amounted to an acknowledgement of the regime’s nature as an “anti-national and anti-historical group.”

Still, Yoon called for embracing the North Korean people.

“The North Korean people are one people with us, with the same rights as us to enjoy freedom, human rights and prosperity,” he said.

Yoon instructed the unification ministry to designate a day for North Korean defectors, noting they are South Korean citizens under the country’s Constitution.

He also called on the National Assembly to pass a bill to delay the enforcement of a workplace safety law for small companies with fewer than 50 employees.

The law punishes business owners or CEOs for deadly accidents caused by lax workplace safety measures with a prison term of at least one year or up to 1 billion won (US$751,000) in fines.

The measure went into force in January 2022 for firms with 50 or more employees and is scheduled to be extended to smaller companies on Jan. 27.

“The importance of workers’ safety cannot be stressed enough. But punishment isn’t everything,” Yoon said. “Our small businesses are already suffering under high interest rates and high prices, and if this burden threatens the survival of small and medium-sized firms, the damage will be passed on directly to our workers and ordinary citizens.”

Yoon also recalled that his heart ached upon learning that an unregistered community center for senior citizens was running on three coal briquettes and instructed the health and interior ministries, as well as local governments, to carry out a full-scale survey of such facilities and draw up effective support measures.

In a video message later in the day, Yoon praised the swift response of the South Korean Marine Corps when North Korea fired approximately 200 artillery shells into waters near the maritime border earlier this month.

“I am truly confident and proud of you all, who carried out duties without any single hesitation during the shelling provocations by North Korea on Jan. 5,” Yoon expressed in his message at a Marine Corps event in Seoul.

In response to the North’s artillery firings, South Korean Marine Corps units on the border islands of Baengnyeong and Yeonpyeong fired some 400 rounds into the maritime buffer zone, double the amount fired by the North.

By Nadeem Faisal Baiga