S Korea to make islands fortresses
Seoul - South Korea's president vowed on Tuesday to turn five islands along the tense border with North Korea into "military fortresses" with jobs for permanent civilian communities, including those destroyed in a North Korean artillery attack.
President Lee Myung-bak's comments came as the chairperson of the US Joint Chiefs of Staff flew to Seoul to give reassurances of the US commitment to the country's defence, and as the top diplomats from the US, Japan and South Korea gathered in Washington in a show of unity.
The diplomats urged the North to stop its "provocative and belligerent" behaviour and abandon its nuclear arms programme.
Tensions are still high on the Korean peninsula following the November 23 North Korean shelling of Yeonpyeong Island, a tiny enclave of military bases and fishing communities along the Koreas' disputed western sea border.
The attack killed two South Korean Marines and two civilians, and reduced many homes and shops to charred rubble.
Lee, in comments posted on his presidential website, said he wanted to "gradually push to make (the five front-line Yellow Sea islands) military fortresses" and to create jobs so local residents can continue to live on all of the islands.
Most of the 1 300 civilians on Yeonpyeong Island have fled, with many now living in a public bathhouse that has been converted into a refugee centre in the port city of Incheon.
Lee has been criticised for a military response to the shelling that was deemed too slow and too weak.
Rewarding 'bad behaviour'
He has ordered reinforcements for the thousands of South Korean troops stationed on Yeonpyeong and the four other border islands, as well as top-level weaponry and upgraded rules of engagement.
In Washington, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton met on Monday with Japanese Foreign Minister Seiji Maehara and South Korean Foreign Minister Kim Sung-hwan.
The meeting was meant to demonstrate a serious response to recent North Korean actions, including the island shelling and Pyongyang's announced expansion of a uranium enrichment capability that the United States and others see as a defiant and dangerous step.
North Korea wants to restart international talks on receiving aid in return for dismantling its nuclear programme, but Clinton made clear that Washington, Tokyo and Seoul view a resumption of talks as tantamount to rewarding North Korea for behaving badly.
"They need to demonstrate a seriousness of purpose in ending their provocations and let the world know they are now ready to come to the table and fulfil the commitments they have already made," Clinton said of the North. "All agree that North Korea's provocative and belligerent behaviour jeopardises peace and stability in Asia."
On Wednesday, the South Korean chairperson of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, General Han Min-koo, will meet with his American counterpart, Navy Admiral Mike Mullen. South Korean military officials said in a statement that the two would assess security on the peninsula and discuss ways to deter future North Korean provocation.