defense minister-tasks

By Kim Eun-jung

SEOUL, March 22 (Yonhap) -- Defense Minister Kim Kwan-jin, who will stay in office under President Park Geun-hye after the resignation of the nominee for his successor, faces an escalation of troubles in handling North Korea as the recalcitrant neighbor is stepping up its missile and nuclear programs as well as cyber warfare capabilities.

Shortly after defense minister nominee Kim Byung-kwan stepped down Friday, the presidential office announced that the current chief -- appointed under the Lee Myung-bak administration -- will continue to stay in office to avoid a security vacuum at a time of escalating military tensions with the communist nation. It is the first time a defense chief has served under two different presidents.

The prompt decision comes as the lack of military leadership has been a nagging problem for the presidential office, which had delayed the appointment of the controversial nominee, mindful of public backlash in the wake of a series of resignations by other nominees over ethical lapses and harsh media scrutiny.

Kim, known for his tough stance towards North Korea, reiterated his commitment to sternly deal with the impoverished, communist nation, which has repeatedly threatened to wage war against Seoul.

"For now, I will devote myself to coping with the current security situation," Kim told reporters shortly after the announcement of his appointment. "I will firmly maintain military readiness to be able to retaliate if provoked."

Considered a hard-liner, the former chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff took office in December 2010 after his predecessor was criticized for the military's allegedly inadequate and late response to North Korea's deadly shelling of South Korea's Yeonpyeong Island near the tense western sea border in November 2010.

Kim raised possibility of additional provocations by young leader Kim Jong-un, who took power in December 2011 after his father's death in order to cement his grip on the impoverished nation, which has faced additional U.N. sanctions for its third nuclear test.

"(Kim Jong-un) is escalating tension by creating a wartime situation as a way to quell complaints by North Koreans, who are suffering. The problem is the young Jong-un could misjudge the current situation," Kim said. "So, I think the North can provoke and have prepared for (possibilities of further attacks)."

Seoul also faces growing cyber warfare challenges in light of a massive cyber attack that hit the nation's major broadcasters and banks earlier this week. The largest cyber attack in two years prompted fresh calls to foster security professionals and cyber warfare warriors to enhance preparedness against the evolving form of threats.

With investigations currently underway, military officials fear North Korea may be behind the massive cyber attack, as it is blamed for shutting down websites of government agencies in 2009 and 2011.

"If the North is found to have to launched cyber attacks, it will have to pay the price. I will study on the possible measures we can take against the attacks," he said.

The North is known to be running a cyber warfare unit, with about 3,000 elite hackers trained to break into computer networks for information and spread computer viruses.

Kim has to prepare for the transition of wartime operational control (OPCON) scheduled in December 2015, while consultations are currently underway to replace the Combined Forces Command with an alternative joint command structure and develop a joint deterrence scenario to better deal with the North Korean threat.

"Basically, the defense ministry will push to prepare (OPCON transition) to meet the December 2015 deadline," Kim said. "As the preparation process needs further review, South Korea and the U.S. can work together to complement the plan if needed."

Tough negotiations lie ahead over Seoul's financial support for the U.S. forces stationed in the nation as a bilateral agreement governing the burden sharing expires later this year. Experts and diplomats said Washington could call for a hefty rise in Seoul's contribution to upkeep costs of American troops as the Pentagon grapples with spending cuts in light of the Obama administration's budget woes.

During his term, Kim pushed for defense reform bills to consolidate the command system of South Korea's armed forces, which calls for the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff to have more power to control the Army, Navy and Air Force.

Kim said he will put more efforts into building consensus on the bill, which is currently pending in parliament due to lackluster support, in order to more effectively counter North Korean threat.

The two Koreas remain technically at war as the 1950-53 Korean War ended in a truce, not a peace treaty.

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