Delivering a televised speech to the nation, Lee offered a rare public apology for the government’s much-criticized response to a rain of North Korean artillery shells on Yeonpyeong Island near the tense Yellow Sea border on Nov. 23.
President Lee Myung-bak speaks in a televised speech.
The president said he feels responsible for the deaths of two South Korean marines and two civilians and enormous property damage to island residents from the North’s artillery assault.
“As the president, I stand here today with a sense of full responsibility” for the failure to protect the lives and property of the people, the grim-faced conservative president said.
“A military attack on civilians is a crime against humanity strictly prohibited even during a war.”
The North launched a sudden barrage of shells at the populated island of Yeonpyeong off the west coast, a long-time flash point between the rival armed forces, which still remain technically at war after the 1950-53 Korean War ended in a cease-fire. The latest attack, the North’s first direct strike on the South’s soil since the end of the war, also wounded nearly 20 others.
Lee said that some artillery rounds fired by the North pounded an area just about 10 meters away from a school on the island.
“I can’t contain my anger over the North Korean regime’s cruelty that ignores even the lives of children,” Lee said. “(South Korea) will make North Korea pay the due price by all means for its provocation from now on.”
The president said South Korea is running out of patience, although it has endeavored to resolve the North Korean nuclear crisis through dialogue and cooperation and has lavished its communist neighbor with humanitarian aid. He said the South had hopes that the North would change its course someday.
“However, what has returned to us is nuclear development and the artillery shelling of Yeonpyeong Island” after the sinking of a South Korean warship, the Cheonan, in March, he said. “Now, we know that it is difficult to expect North Korea to abandon its nuclear (weapons) and military brinkmanship on its own.”
Lee’s statement came a day after he negatively reacted to China’s proposal to hold an emergency meeting of the top envoys to the long-stalled six-nation talks on the termination of Pyongyang’s nuclear weapons drive. Pyongyang unveiled its new uranium enrichment facility earlier this month, adding to its decades-long plutonium-based nuclear program.
When the president addressed the nation in late May shortly after the North was found to have torpedoed the Cheonan, he did not make a public apology.
Lee appealed to the South Korean people for unity, saying a “unified people” would take national security to its strongest level.
He asked the people to trust the government and the military, saying he will carry out an overhaul of the armed forces as planned.