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By Chang Jae-soon
SEOUL, Nov. 25 (Yonhap) -- President Park Geun-hye said Monday she won't tolerate or overlook any attempts to cause social division in South Korea after a Catholic priest made remarks justifying North Korea's deadly 2010 artillery attack on a border island.
The priest, Park Chang-shin, made the remarks Friday during Mass urging Park to resign over allegations that state agencies, including the National Intelligence Service, tampered with last year's presidential election with online political postings in favor of her.
During the Mass, the priest claimed it was natural for the North to launch the island attack because the South and the United States held military exercises near the Yellow Sea border that Pyongyang does not recognize.
The cleric also strongly discredited a government finding that the North torpedoed a South Korean warship in 2010 in waters near the Yellow Sea border between the two Koreas, saying the communist nation could not have mounted such a highly sophisticated attack.
The remarks caused an uproar among conservative South Koreans still resenting the two deadly attacks. A total of 50 South Koreans, including two civilians, were killed in the shelling of Yeonpyeong Island and the sinking of the warship Cheonan.
"There are many things happening that break the morale of our soldiers ... and make their sacrifices go down the drain," Park said during a meeting with senior secretaries. "I and the government won't tolerate or overlook these things that let people's trust fall and cause divisiveness."
The remark was seen as criticism of the priest, though she did not directly mention him.
The priest is a member of the Catholic Priests' Association for Justice, a group of liberal priests known for its efforts to bring democracy to South Korea in the 1980s. The group has since taken stances on many sensitive issues, drawing conservative criticism it is politically biased.
North Korea has long been one of the most divisive issues in South Korea. When the government announced the results of an international probe into the 2010 sinking of the Cheonan, many liberals doubted the findings that the North was behind the attack.
Liberals have accused conservatives of blindly branding them as pro-North Korean in an attempt to stifle legitimate dissent they raise about various social and political issues in what they call a neo-McCarthyism.
Park also stressed it takes not only state-of-the-art weapons, but also "people's patriotism and unity" to defend the country. If North Korea attempt surprise attacks again, she said the South should "respond sternly and make it never attempt them again."
Hours earlier, Prime Minister Chung Hong-won directly criticized the priest.
"This is an act of destroying the Republic of Korea and siding with the enemy," Chung said during an emergency meeting with senior officials, according to his office. The Republic of Korea is South Korea's official name.
"Priest Park's remarks not only speak for North Korea's logic, but also advocate North Korea's inhumane provocations that ... claimed the lives of innocent residents. We can never sit by and (he) should take responsibility as a matter of course," Chung said.
"I have no face to see the souls of fallen heroes who died while defending the country," he said. "In order to ensure their sacrifices won't go down the drain, any forces hurting the basic order of liberal democracy or impeding national security commitment deserve national criticism and should never be tolerated."
Later in the day, Park criticized Pyongyang for still clinging to an "unrealistic" goal of pursuing nuclear and economic development at the same time, and reneging on hard-won agreements with the South, such as its unilateral cancellation of reunions for separated families.
Still, that does not mean the South should give up on efforts for reunification, she said.
"Even if it is difficult to expect a big change in North Korea any time soon, I believe we should try to build trust between the South and the North in a step-by-step manner," she said in a meeting with leaders of the National Unification Advisory Council.
"If the South and the North try to make sure to honor promises no matter how small they are, and begin cooperation on small, workable things first, this will serve as a basis for building trust," she said.
Park said it is also important to work together with the international community to create an environment where Pyongyang cannot help but make the right decision to become a responsible member of the community.
The South will leave open the doors for dialogue with the North, but any talks with the communist nation should not just be for the sake of talks, she said, adding she will make every possible effort to help Pyongyang learn the international norm that promises must be kept.
She also called for greater attention on caring for North Korean defectors living in the South, saying their roles are important for unification efforts.
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