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Amid rising tensions, South Korea offers rare glimpse inside military bases

South Korean fighter pilots are 'ready to scramble' as North Korea prepares a missile launch.

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South Korea's recent show of toughness reflects the conservative outlook of President Lee Myung Bak, who has spurned the so-called Sunshine policy of greater openness initiated by Kim Dae Jung during his presidency beginning in 1998.

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"You know the policy," says Yoon Dae Jyu, vice president of Kyungnam University. "This is quite consistent with every branch of this government. They want to show the difference" between Mr. Lee's hard-line stance and the conciliatory position of the previous two presidents.

At the naval base, Lt. Cmdr. Kim Tae-ho says "the rules of engagement" have changed since North Koreans attacked South Korean vessels in the West, or Yellow, Sea in June 1999 and again in June 2002.

"We could not fire first at that time," says Commander Kim. "Now we can fire a warning shot."

On a slope at the naval base, looking over the West Sea, is a monument to the six sailors killed in the 2002 engagement.

Beneath the slope is the patrol boat that North Koreans fired on, the bullet holes circled in red to show the damage. Displaying the ship like a wounded hero, South Koreans say their forces sank a North Korean vessel, killing approximately 30 of the enemy, during the 25-minute battle.

South Korean forces are constantly braced for North Korean missile attacks – not by the Taepodong-2 but by short-range Scud missiles. "It's difficult to know where they will practice missile attacks," says Rear Adm. Chae Hong-pil, vice commander of South Korea's Second Fleet, "but we will follow rules of engagement and take measures."

The pilots at this air base, the largest in South Korea, don't worry about the Taepodong-2 missile, poised to fly east over Japan, but are on increased alert for a repetition of the 1999 and 2002 attacks.

The alert level "is now at a higher class" than in 2002, says Air Force Brig. Gen. Jung Jae-bu, commander of the 20th Fighter Wing. The base, he says, is "one of the most advanced," and six planes are on special-alert status 24 hours a day should North Korean planes move too close to their side of the demilitarized zone between the two Koreas.

The commander of Captain Yang's squadron says North Korea has so many surface-to-air missiles (SAMs) that "it's hard to penetrate," but he's sure the 80 or so F16s at this base on South Korea's west coast can penetrate the North's defenses.

"It's no problem destroying those SAMs," says the squadron commander, looking at graphics on the wall behind him. "We have intelligence about all the stationery SAM sites and high-speed missiles. They track radiation from the SAMs so we know where they are before they fire at us."

At a large depot at the base, a South Korean Air Force officer stands beside a row of weaponry for every purpose from knocking out tanks to hitting enemy aircraft from many miles away.

The officer talks about what the weapons can do, not why he's showing them off, but the squadron commander says the answer is obvious. "Every pilot is ready for contingency operations," he says. "We maintain 24-hour alert."