Yeonpyeong island South Korea AP
Smokes billow from South Korea's Yeonpyeong island, near the border with North Korea, November 23, 2010. Photo by AP
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The United States on Wednesday declared that it "stood in solidarity with our South Korean allies" in condemning North Korea's artillery attack a day earlier.

"We call on all members of the international community to condemn the DPRK’s acts and to make clear that they expect the DPRK to cease all provocations and implement its denuclearization commitments," said Stephen W. Bosworth Special Representative for North Korea Policy.

"The United States remains firmly committed to the defense of the Republic of Korea and to the maintenance of peace and stability in Northeast Asia," he added.

South Korean President Lee Myung-bak's government was criticized at home on Wednesday for its slow response to a North Korean attack, with lawmakers and media saying it was now time to get tough.

Lee has vowed a firm response to Tuesday's attack by North Korea, but Seoul too has no desire for a serious conflict. While North Korea would certainly lose any war, it would be able to do enormous damage to the South with its vast artillery.

Lee won office in 2008 vowing to take an uncompromising stand with neighboring North Korea, but for the second time this year his conservative government is being criticized for being indecisive in responding to crises involving the mercurial state.

In March, Lee's government was criticized for responding too slowly to the sinking of a South Korean warship in the same area. Forty-six sailors were killed in the attack the South blamed on the North. Pyongyang said it wasn't to blame.

A day after the North fired a barrage of artillery shells at the island of Yeonpyeong, killing two civilians and soldiers, members of Lee's own party and opposition lawmakers accused the South's military of being too weak and responding too late.

In a fiery parliamentary hearing, Defense Minister Kim Tae-young was grilled by lawmakers who said the government should have taken quicker and stronger retaliatory measures against the North's provocation.

"I am sorry that the government has not carried out ruthless bombing through jet fighters during the North's second round of shelling," Kim Jang-soo, a lawmaker of the ruling Grand National Party and a former defense minister, was quoted as saying by Yonhap news agency during the national defense committee.

"Why did we shoot only 80 shells even as the North fired 170?" asked Sim Dae-pyung, chairman of the minor opposition People First Party.

Kim explained the current operational manual calls for retaliatory attacks of up to double the firepower employed by the enemy and using the equivalent types of weapons to those used by the enemy.

Lawmakers also quizzed Kim about the apparent lack of intelligence about the attack. He replied that the North had sent warning statements concerning the South's test firing exercises in the area, but these threats mirrored previous rhetoric from Pyongyang which had amounted to nothing.

The small conservative Liberty Forward Party hit out at the South's military for responding too slowly, demanding to know why it took some 15 minutes to respond to the North Korean shelling.

A party source told Yonhap that "when an enemy attacks, battle preparations have to be made within five minutes but after North Korea's first shots the South Korean army responded with fire after 15 minutes".
"After North Korea's second attack also, it took 15 minutes to respond with fire."

Editorials in local media also said it was now time for retaliation.

The JoongAng Daily urged Lee to send a clear message to the North, saying the North's provocation had "gone beyond our imagination".
Earlier this year, Lee's government was criticized for its response to the sinking of the Cheonan warship and what many saw as its overly cautious handling of possible links to North Korea.

A government audit found the military leadership's reactions on the night of the Cheonan's sinking were shoddy and sloppy and that it tried covering up its bungled crisis management. It also criticized the defense ministry.

Lee, well known for his hawkish policies, ended the South's Sunshine Policy of engagement with North Korea in 2008, cutting aid and refusing to give in to Pyongyang's demand for concessions, saying the North must first give up its nuclear programs.