South Korea’s Defense Chief Resigns in Wake of Attack
|A South Korean Marine officer stood in front of a military facility on Thursday that had been hit by a shell fired by North Korea on Yeonpyeong island.|
SEOUL, South Korea — President Lee Myung-bak accepted the resignation of Defense Minister Kim Tae-young on Thursday amid intense criticism over the South’s response to an artillery attack by North Korea two days earlier and the sinking of a warship in March.
“There was a need to revamp the military landscape,” a senior government official said Thursday night. “It was time.”
The government official said Mr. Kim offered his resignation on May 1, after a South Korean Navy vessel, the Cheonan, was sunk off the coast of North Korea in the Yellow Sea. Mr. Lee deferred the resignation and asked Mr. Kim to stay on. It was expected that his replacement would be named on Friday.
Earlier Thursday, the government said it would bolster its island defenses in the Yellow Sea and make its rules of engagement more muscular. Mr. Lee held a security meeting Thursday morning at the Blue House, the presidential compound in Seoul, where the new strategies were drafted.
Seoul also said it would press China to use its considerable diplomatic leverage with the North to avoid an escalation of tensions on the Korean peninsula.
Mr. Kim’s departure followed one of the most violent clashes as the North and South exchanged artillery barrages on Tuesday afternoon. The battle killed two marines and two civilians on the small South Korean island of Yeonpyeong, about nine miles off the North Korean coast.
A commentary in the conservative South Korean daily Chosun Ilbo assailed Mr. Kim, saying the military had been outgunned and underprepared.
“The minister practically admitted that the military failed to respond to a new type of North Korean threat” in the Yellow Sea, the newspaper said, charging that “the military has been implementing reforms that weaken defense capabilities” on the islands.
Beijing’s response has so far been muted, and a senior government official in Seoul said privately on Thursday that South Korea was going to “pull out all the stops and make every diplomatic effort with China.”
It was unclear whether the arrival of a United States aircraft carrier group off North Korea’s coast would be seen as a provocation. The carrier George Washington — with 5,700 personnel and about 85 fighter planes — was headed Thursday to the Yellow Sea. The carrier group will join with South Korean forces for a four-day series of military exercises that are scheduled to start Sunday.
A Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman said Thursday that China had expressed its concern over the exercises and would be paying “close attention” to American naval movements.
The spokesman also reiterated that China supported resumption of the so-called six-party talks on the dismantling of North Korea’s nuclear programs. The talks involve the two Koreas, China, Russia, Japan and the United States. They broke down when North Korea withdrew last year, although in recent months Pyongyang has sought to renew the process.
The American general who heads the United Nations Command in South Korea, Gen. Walter L. Sharp, has called for military talks with senior officers of the North Korean People’s Army “in order to initiate an exchange of information and de-escalate the situation.” The North rejected that idea on Thursday.
Through its official news agency, Pyongyang also warned of further military retaliation if provoked by South Korea.
At the Blue House meeting, Mr. Lee said, “We should not drop our guard in preparation for the possibility of another provocation by North Korea,” according to his chief spokesman, Hong Sang-pyo. “A provocation like this can recur any time.”
South Korean defenses on its five coastal islands in the Yellow Sea had been set up primarily to guard against possible amphibious landings by North Korean troops. Critics said on Thursday that the military had not anticipated the possibility of an attack by North Korean artillery batteries, which are reportedly situated in caves along the North’s coastline.
“Now an artillery battle has become the new threat, so we’re reassessing the need to strengthen defenses,” Mr. Kim told lawmakers. The new measures he outlined include doubling the number of howitzers and upgrading other weaponry.
New rules of engagement will be based on whether military or civilian targets are targeted, said Mr. Hong, the presidential spokesman, adding that the move was to “change the paradigm of responding to North Korea’s provocations.”
The sinking a Korean naval vessel on March 26 killed 46 sailors, and Mr. Kim was widely criticized for the navy’s lack of preparedness. The South has blamed the incident on a North Korean torpedo attack. The North has denied any involvement and has refused a South Korean demand for an apology.
An internal government probe into the Cheonan incident “revealed a series of problems in the Defense Ministry’s and the military’s handling of the incident, including the lack of a combat-ready posture, reporting system, crisis-response measures and management of military confidential information,” the Audit Board said in announcing its findings in June.