South Korea may appoint a new defense minister today after Kim Tae Young resigned in the wake of North Korea firing artillery onto the South’s territory for the first time in half a century this week.
Kim’s resignation was accepted by President Lee Myung Bak yesterday and a replacement will probably be announced today, according to a statement on the website of the presidential office. Kim had offered to resign in May after the sinking of the South Korean warship Cheonan in March, according to the statement.
The decision was made “in an attempt to restore the discipline of the military in the wake of the latest development,” the statement said. South Korea’s Yonhap News agency said that Lee was “bowing to public pressure” after the minister was “accused of mishandling North Korea’s deadly artillery attack.”
Tensions with North Korea have risen since the sinking of the warship, which killed 46 sailors. The Nov. 23 shelling of the Yeonpyeong island, which killed four and wounded 20, is the first of its kind since the 1950-1953 Korean War and spurred President Barack Obama to send an aircraft carrier to the Yellow Sea as a show of support and strength.
South Korea will revise battle manuals and increase military strength on its maritime border, the presidential office said in a separate statement yesterday after an emergency Cabinet meeting.
Plans to reduce the number of marines on Yeonpyeong and four neighboring islands on the western side of the Korean peninsula will be scrapped, according to the statement. The nation has raised its military alert status to the second- highest level.
The North Korean army’s Supreme Command, in a statement issued through the official Korean Central News Agency, accused South Korea of firing first in the Nov. 23 incident and warned of “merciless military attacks” if its territory is violated.
China’s Foreign Ministry spokesman Hong Lei told reporters in Beijing it was evident that North and South Korea disagreed on which side started the clash. Premier Wen Jiabao has reiterated calls for stability on the Korean peninsula, without ascribing any blame to the North.
Obama, Lee and Japan’s Prime Minister Naoto Kan have urged China to use its influence to temper North Korean acts of aggression. China is the regime’s main economic and political benefactor and the two countries fought together against United Nations forces during the Korean War.
“China thinks the most important and urgent goal right now is to make sure there won’t be any escalation of the conflict, rather than finding out who’s responsible,” said Yang Xiyu, a researcher at the China Institute of International Studies in Beijing, a group attached to China’s Foreign Ministry.
China’s refusal to blame North Korea mirrors its response to the sinking of the Cheonan. While the U.S., Japan, Australia and the U.K. all backed the findings of an international probe that said a North Korean torpedo caused the incident, China said it couldn’t reach a conclusion without seeing first-hand evidence.
Wen said that restarting six-party talks on dismantling North Korea’s nuclear weapons program is an essential step to ensuring stability, according to Xinhua. Hong appealed to the two Koreas to resume dialogue and use “a peaceful approach to solve conflicts.”
Trade between China and North Korea climbed 22.3 percent in the first seven months of this year to $1.65 billion, with Chinese exports rising 29.6 percent, according to Chinese customs statistics. North Korean leader Kim Jong Il made an unprecedented two trips to China this year, meeting with President Hu Jintao in May and August.
Obama told Lee in a phone conversation that he plans to place a call to China to urge its cooperation on North Korean issues, according to a statement from Lee’s office. White House press secretary Robert Gibbs said in an e-mail this week that Obama would make the call to Hu in the “next several days.”
Kan, in a separate phone conversation, told Lee that “given China’s influence over North Korea, China should display a stern attitude,” Lee’s office said. Kan also pledged to convey this message to the Chinese government.
The U.S. should consider responding to North Korea’s call for direct talks that could lead to North Korea agreeing to end its nuclear programs, former president Jimmy Carter wrote yesterday in an article in the Washington Post.
North Korean ‘Fear’
“The unfortunate alternative is for North Koreans to take whatever actions they consider necessary to defend themselves from what they claim to fear most: a military attack supported by the United States, along with efforts to change the political regime,” Carter wrote.
While China’s public stance toward North Korea may not change, concern is growing in Beijing that an ally of six decades is increasingly a diplomatic liability, said Zhu Feng, a professor of international relations at Peking University.
“This attack proves that North Korea is entirely a minus to China’s foreign policy,” Zhu said. “I see growing frustration and I see a new imperative to overhaul the policy.”
Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, speaking on state television yesterday in Moscow, condemned the North Korea shelling while saying that South Korea had ignored a request to cancel military exercises.
“This most recent incident was preceded by information that North Korea had appealed to South Korea not to hold military exercises, not to hold artillery practice,” Lavrov said. “But the exercises were held.”
Lavrov added: “It’s one thing to fire on water, even if the waters are disputed, and another thing entirely to hit land targets, populated areas. People died, that’s the main thing.”
He said the United Nations Security Council will issue a statement on the incident in the immediate future.
Russia, like China, shares a border with North Korea.