Seoul to name new defence minister after shelling

Thursday, November 25, 2010

SEOUL - South Korea was to name a new defence minister Friday after the resignation of Kim Tae Young in taking responsibility for what was seen as a weak response by Seoul to North Korea’s artillery strike earlier in the week.

The presidential office said that “the decision was taken today in order to restore discipline of the military in the wake of the latest developments”.

The announcement late Thursday followed a further day of tensions on the Korean peninsula two days after the North Korean artillery strike on Yeonpyeong island near the two countries’ disputed maritime border, killing two South Korean soldiers and two civilians.

Seoul announced that it was boosting its forces in the Yellow Sea and toughening its rules of engagement and Pyongyang threatening further “strong” blows against the south.

South Korea’s presidential office said President Lee Myung Bak had accepted defence minister Kim’s resignation. He quit after lawmakers from both the ruling and opposition parties earlier in the day had called for Kim and leading military leaders to be dismissed, accusing them of fumbling the response to Tuesday’s artillery attack.

Lee’s government - which returned the North’s artillery fire, targeting artillery posts on the North Korean coast - has been criticized for responding too weakly and too late to the attack.

According to South Korea, its neighbour fired more than 170 artillery rounds, 80 of which hit Yeonpyeong, which lies 12 km from North Korea. The South answered back with 80 rounds of its own, aiming for artillery posts on North Korea’s coast. The exchange of fire lasted about an hour.

South Korea said it is to increase its armed forces in the seas west of the two neighbours’ coasts to deter any further attacks from the North, an official from the presidential Office said.

Lee also ordered that troops on five islands in the Yellow Sea receive better weapons, said Hong Sang Pyo, senior presidential secretary for public affairs. More of the budget is to be devoted to the forces there.

“We should not ease our sense of crisis in preparation for the possibility of another provocation by North Korea,” Lee reportedly told a meeting of security and economy ministers. “A provocation like this can recur any time.”

Seoul also said it was planning to overhaul its rules of engagement regarding the North after criticism that they are weak in the face of Pyongyang’s aggression.

Lee said his country would make “across-the-board” changes to the rules.

In North Korea, the military issued a statement carried by state media, saying, “The [North] Korean People’s Army will deal without hesitation the second and third strong, physical, retaliatory blow.”

North Korea blamed the South and its ally the US for Tuesday’s clash. It charged that the US shared responsibility for the drawing of the sea border established by the UN after the 1950-53 Korean War. North Korea does not recognize that border, which runs three kilometres north of Yeonpyeong, and has said it should run south of the island.

North Korea’s latest threat came a day after the US and South Korean militaries announced new joint naval manoeuvres in the Yellow Sea that are to begin Sunday and last until Wednesday and include the US aircraft carrier USS George Washington.

China, North Korea’s only major ally, worried that the exercises would escalate the conflict. Premier Wen Jiabao said Thursday his government opposes “any military provocation” on the Korean Peninsula and urged all sides to exercise “maximum restraint” during a meeting in Beijing with Russian President Dmitry Medvedev, state media reported.

Tensions have been running high on the divided peninsula since the sinking of a South Korean navy vessel March 26, which left 46 sailors dead and which Seoul blames on a torpedo attack by the North’s navy.

The two Koreas remain technically at war after an armistice rather than a peace treaty ended the Korean War.

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