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S Korea vows air strikes if North attacks again


SEOUL (AFP): South Korea will hit back with air strikes at the North and "punish the attacker thoroughly" should the regime launch another assault, the defence minister-designate has warned.

The tough words came as the largest ever US-Japan war games kicked off Friday in waters off the tense Korean peninsula, and as the UN's atomic watchdog voiced "great concern" about the North's nuclear ambitions.

The manoeuvres in the East China Sea dwarf US-South Korean exercises this week in the Yellow Sea. These were designed as a show of force to Pyongyang after its regime launched a deadly artillery strike against South Korea.

In Seoul the nominated defence minister Kim Kwan-Jin told a parliamentary confirmation hearing that if the communist regime of Kim Jong-Il attacked again, "we would definitely use the air force to strike back".

The South's military counter-attacked with artillery fire after the North on November 23 shelled a border island, killing two civilians and two marines, but refrained from using air power for fear of escalating the clash.

Kim, a retired four-star general and former chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said the South would exercise its right to self-defence and "punish the attacker thoroughly until the source of hostility is eliminated".

But he dismissed the chance of full-scale war as slim, citing the military prowess of South Korean and allied US forces, which have 28,500 troops based in the country. The South also plans five days of artillery firing next week.

But the defence ministry held off on scheduling a drill on Yeonpyeong which was hit in the November 23 attack and is just 12 kilometres from North Korea's coast, saying it could come "by the end of this year at the latest".

The United States, meanwhile, joined forces with officially pacifist Japan in a giant display of military firepower dubbed "Keen Sword," with 60 warships, 500 aircraft and 44,000 troops in southern Japanese waters.

The long-scheduled drill comes in a year when China has had a bitter maritime territorial row with Japan and quarrelled with Southeast Asian nations over what the regional giant claims are its ancestral waters.

China, which has resisted calls publicly to condemn its long-time ally North Korea for the artillery attack has instead called for negotiations with Pyongyang, saying that to talk is better than to "brandish weapons".

Washington, Tokyo and Seoul have snubbed Beijing's proposal for six-way talks that would also involve Moscow opting instead for their own three-way meeting to be hosted by US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton on Monday.

The Air Force has not said whether it carried anything in its cargo bay, but insists the primary purpose of the mission was to test the craft itself.

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US  Japan  war games  

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