S. Korea vows swift response to North; US deploys stealth jets

Updated 05 April 2013
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S. Korea vows swift response to North; US deploys stealth jets

SEOUL: South Korea will strike back quickly if the North stages any attack, the new president in Seoul warned yesterday, as tensions ratcheted higher on the Korean peninsula amid shrill rhetoric from Pyongyang and the US deployment of radar-evading fighter planes.
North Korea says the region is on the brink of a nuclear war in the wake of United Nations sanctions imposed for its February nuclear test and a series of joint US and South Korean military drills that have included a rare US show of aerial power.
The North, whose economy is smaller than it was 20 years ago, appeared to move yesterday to addressing its pressing need for investment by appointing a reformer to the country's ceremonial prime minister's job, although the move mostly cemented a power grab by the ruling Kim clan.
North Korea had said on Saturday it was entering a "state of war" with South Korea in response to what it termed the "hostile" military drills being staged in the South. But there have been no signs of unusual activity in the North's military to suggest an imminent aggression, a South Korean Defense Ministry official said last week.
"If there is any provocation against South Korea and its people, there should be a strong response in initial combat without any political considerations," President Park Geun-hye told the defense minister and senior officials at a meeting yesterday.
The South has changed its rules of engagement to allow local units to respond immediately to attacks, rather than waiting for permission from Seoul.
Stung by criticism that its response to the shelling of a South Korean island in 2010 was tardy and weak, Seoul has also threatened to target North Korean leader Kim Jong-un and to destroy statues of the ruling Kim dynasty in the event of any new attack, a plan that has outraged Pyongyang.
Seoul and its ally the United States played down Saturday's statement from the official KCNA news agency as the latest in a stream of tough talk from Pyongyang.
North Korea stepped up its rhetoric in early March, when US and South Korean forces began annual military drills that involved the flights of US B-2 stealth bombers in a practice run, prompting the North to puts its missile units on standby to fire at US military bases in the South and in the Pacific.
The United States also deployed F-22 stealth fighter jets on Sunday to take part in the drills. The F-22s were deployed in South Korea before, in 2010.
On its part, North Korea has cancelled an armistice agreement with the United States that ended the Korean War and cut all hotlines with US forces, the United Nations and South Korea.
Park's intervention came on the heels of a meeting of the North's ruling Workers Party Central Committee where leader Kim Jong-un rejected the notion that Pyongyang was going to use its nuclear arms development as a bargaining chip.
"The nuclear weapons of Songun Korea are not goods for getting US dollars and they are ... (not) to be put on the table of negotiations aimed at forcing the (North) to disarm itself," KCNA news agency quoted him as saying.
At the meeting, Kim appointed a handful of personal confidants to the party's politburo, further consolidating his grip on power in the second full year of his reign.
The most surprising appointment came yesterday as former Prime Minister Pak Pong-ju was re-appointed as premier, although the move likely signalled another power struggle in Pyongang staged by the country's leader Kim Jong-un.
Pak is viewed as a key ally of Jang Song-thaek, the young Kim's uncle and also a protege of Kim's aunt and is viewed as a pawn in a power game that has seen Jang and his wife re-assert power over military leaders.
Analysts said the move would not likely change Pyongyang's approach to a confrontation that appears to have dragged the two Koreas closer to war.
Pyongyang's on-off negotiations saw it take part in nuclear disarmament talks for five years aimed at paying it off in return for abandoning its atomic weapons program. Those talks fell apart in 2008. Some experts say the talks gave the North grounds to pursue a highly enriched uranium program that took it closer to owning a working arsenal.
Songun is the Korean word for the "Military First" policy preached by Kim's father who used it to justify the use of the impoverished state's scare resources to build a 1.2-million strong army and a weapons of mass destruction program.
White House National Security Council spokeswoman Caitlin Hayden said North Korea's announcement that it was in a state of war followed a "familiar pattern" of rhetoric.
China has repeatedly called for restraint on the peninsula.
However, many in South Korea have regarded the North's willingness to keep open the Kaesong industrial zone, located just a few miles (km) north of the heavily-militarized border and operated jointly by both sides, as a sign that Pyongyang will not risk losing a lucrative source of foreign currency.
Closure could also trap hundreds of South Korean workers and managers of the more than 100 firms that have factories there.


Greece ‘turning a page’ as eurozone declares crisis over

Updated 44 min 14 sec ago
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Greece ‘turning a page’ as eurozone declares crisis over

  • The eurozone ministers’ agreement comes nearly a decade after Athens finances spun out of control, sparking three bailouts and threatening the country’s euro membership.
  • EU Economic Affairs Commissioner Pierre Moscovici: “The Greek crisis ends here tonight.”

ATHENS: Greek Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras on Friday said the country was “turning a page” after eurozone ministers declared its crisis over as they granted Athens debt relief under a bailout exit strategy.
The eurozone ministers’ agreement comes nearly a decade after Athens finances spun out of control, sparking three bailouts and threatening the country’s euro membership.
“Yesterday we reached a historic agreement on Greece’s debt with the Eurogroup,” Tsipras told the country’s president, Prokopis Pavlopoulos.
“We are turning a page,” he said, adding that Greece had to remain on the path of reform.
Following the eurozone ministers’ hard-fought agreement declared earlier Friday, Greece is slated to leave its third financial rescue since 2010 on August 20.
“The Greek crisis ends here tonight,” said EU Economic Affairs Commissioner Pierre Moscovici, after marathon talks in Luxembourg.
The deal was expected to be an easy one, but last-minute resistance by Germany — Greece’s long bailout nemesis and biggest creditor — dragged the talks on for six hours.
The ministers agreed to extend maturities by 10 years on major parts of its total debt obligations, a mountain that has reached close to double the country’s annual economic output.
They also agreed to disburse €15 billion ($17.5 billion) to ease Greece’s exit from the rescue program.
This would leave Greece with a hefty €24 billion safety cushion, officials said.
“The agreed debt relief is bigger than we had expected,” Citi European Economics said in a note.
“In particular, the 10-year extension of the EFSF loans’ maturity and most importantly the grace period on interest payments is a significant development,” they added.
“The Greek government is happy with the agreement,” Greek Finance Minister Euclid Tsakalotos said after the talks.
But “to make this worthwhile we have to make sure that the Greek people must quickly see concrete results... they need to feel the change in their own pockets,” he added.
The eight-year crisis toppled four governments and shrank the economy by 25 percent. Unemployment soared and still hovers over 20 percent, sending thousands of young educated Greeks abroad.
Optimism is tempered by Greece’s remaining fiscal obligations, which will demand serious discipline, observers say.
“This is a very tight program. A surplus of 3.5 percent to 2022 and 2.2 percent (on average) to 2060 is not easy at all,” Kostas Boukas, asset management director at Beta Securities, told Athens 9,84 radio.
“We’ll have to see if the pledges will be kept, especially as they depend on international developments as well,” he said.
Under pressure from its creditors, Greece has already agreed to slash pensions again in 2019, and reduce the tax-free income threshold for millions of people in 2020.
Further cuts will be made to maintain the 3.5-percent surplus, if necessary.
“It would be a terrible mistake to cultivate illusions that the end of the bailout means a return to normality,” said pro-opposition daily Ta Nea.
“What follows is tough oversight which no other country has experienced in a post-bailout period,” the daily said.
The European Commission has already specified that Greece will remain under fiscal supervision until it repays 75 percent of its loans.
Athens has received €273.7 billion in assistance since 2010, enabling it to avoid punishing borrowing rates on debt markets.
The International Monetary Fund, led by the tough-talking Christine Lagarde, welcomed the debt relief, but cited reservations about Greece’s obligations over the long term.
“In the medium term analysis there is no doubt in our minds that Greece will be able to reaccess the markets,” Lagarde said after the talks.
“As far as the longer term is concerned we have concerns,” she added.
The reform-pushing IMF played an active role in the two first Greek bailouts, but took only an observer role in the third in the belief that Greece’s debt pile was unsustainable in the long term.