South Korea’s disgraced defense minister resigned Thursday amid growing criticism in the wake of a deadly North Korean artillery barrage, setting the stage for sweeping changes in the South Korean military establishment.
Defense Minister Kim Tae-young’s resignation came as lawmakers blasted the government of President Lee Myung-bak for its slow response to Pyongyang’s attack on an island outpost Tuesday that killed four people and injured 20. Lee accepted the resignation just hours after promising to send more troops to the disputed maritime border between North and South.
The drama within Lee’s Cabinet ended a tense day that saw North Korea warn that it may attack again and Beijing voice concern over U.S.-South Korean naval exercises set to begin Sunday. If further provoked, North Korea “will deal without hesitation the second and third strong physical retaliatory blow,” read a statement carried by the state-run Korean Central News Agency.
The joint drills, which will involve a flotilla of U.S. ships, including the nuclear-powered aircraft carrier George Washington, will “send a clear message to the North,” a South Korean Foreign Ministry spokesman said.
In Beijing, Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Hong Lei questioned the timing of the exercises, saying officials “have noted the relevant reports and express our concern.”
A day earlier, Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao called on all sides to exert “maximum restraint” but didn’t mention North Korea by name or set blame for the attack.
As the U.S. and South Korea pressured China to help curb North Korea, Russian officials Thursday also sought calm, saying they hoped the U.N. Security Council would weigh in soon on the attack.
“I hope that in the coming days the council will express its opinion and that this will help to calm the situation,” Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov told reporters in Moscow.
Although South Korean lawmakers overwhelmingly supported a resolution to condemn North Korea’s attack, the 261-1 vote stopped short of demanding retaliation.
The North’s shelling barrage occurred on tiny Yeonpyeong Island, a commercial fishing and military outpost whose sovereignty has long been in dispute between Seoul and Pyongyang.
Few observers in Seoul were surprised at Kim’s departure, which came eight months after the sinking of a South Korean warship killed 46 sailors. Seoul said the ship was struck by a North Korean torpedo; Pyongyang has denied involvement.
At the time, Kim offered to resign but was allowed to keep his post. This time, however, the Lee administration accepted his resignation.
Officials said the military also planned “across-the-board” revisions to its policy involving the use of force and would scrap a 2006 plan to scale down the armed forces’ presence in the region.
“Our existing rules of engagement have been assessed as rather passive, focusing on preventing the escalation of a conflict,” said Hong Sang-pyo, a presidential spokesman.
Lawmakers bashed the military’s slow response to the attack. After Pyongyang fired 170 shells at the island, South Korean forces waited 10 minutes before firing 80 shells at northern artillery positions.
Lee on Thursday instead tried to focus on the North Korean threat.
“We should not release our sense of crisis in preparation for the possibility of another provocation by North Korea. A provocation like this can recur anytime,” he said at an emergency Cabinet meeting.
In other retaliatory measures against the North, Seoul slashed aid and canceled family reunions that had resumed after a lapse of several years. Seoul had sent 5,000 tons of rice, 3 million packs of instant noodles and 3,000 tons of cement in flood aid in the last three months alone.
For its part, North Korea on Thursday continued to blame the U.S. and South Korea for the artillery bombardment, insisting that South Korea fired first and that it shelled the island in defense.
Pyongyang said the U.S. bore responsibility for recent hostilities with its refusal to sign a pact officially ending the Korean War, which has been sought by the North. “The U.S., therefore, cannot evade the blame for the recent shelling,” read the North Korean statement.
South Korean media reported Thursday that North Korean leader Kim Jong Il and his youngest son, Kim Jong Eun, visited the North’s artillery base just hours before the start of shelling, disputing theories by some analysts here that the decision to attack was made by a rogue military commander.
Later in the day, Seoul officials reiterated that the North Korean leader had called for the attack. “This provocation was carefully coordinated and planned by Kim Jong Il. Any single gunshot by North Korea will be commanded by the ‘Dear Leader’ and his third son,” a senior government official said.
Analysts predicted that the four-day joint naval exercises would further escalate tensions.
“There is a possibility of a second North Korean attack, perhaps even as soon as the start of the naval exercises on Sunday,” said Cheong Seong-chang, an expert on North Korean politics at Seoul’s Sejong Institute.
Kim works in The Times’ Seoul Bureau.