Pyongyang says peninsula inching to ‘brink of war’

North Korea said on Friday that impending military exercises by the South and the United States are pushing the region towards war, days after it launched its heaviest bombardment since the 1950-53 Korean War.

South Korean media said President Lee Myung-bak would appoint a career military man as new defence minister after the current minister resigned in the face of criticsm for being too slow to respond to Tuesday’s bombardment of an island close to a disputed sea border. The government said it was still deciding.

“The situation on the Korean Peninsula is inching closer to the brink of war due to the reckless plan of those trigger-happy elements to stage again war exercises targeted against the [North],” the North’s official KCNA news agency said.

The aggressive language was typical for North Korean state-owned media but amid the heightened tension was enough to push the won down slightly. The stock market barely reacted.

The warning came as South Korean media reported President Lee Myng-bak would name his security adviser, Lee Hee-won, as the new defence minister later in the day.

He would replace Kim Tae-young, who resigned after criticism about the pace of Seoul’s response to Tuesday’s shelling of an island near their disputed maritime boundary in the Yellow Sea, the most aggressive by the North since the 1950-53 Korean War.

The United States is sending in naval ships, led by the nuclear-powered aircraft carrier USS George Washington, to the Yellow Sea for military exercises with the South Korean navy.

“The exercises will be held on Sunday as planned and the George Washington is on its way here to arrive on Sunday,” a spokesperson for US Forces Korea said.

Planned before this week’s attack, the four-day manoeuvres are a show of strength which, besides enraging North Korea, have already unsettled China, its major ally and neighbour.

Washington is pressing China to rein in its ally North Korea to help ease tension in the world’s fastest-growing economic region.

Speak to Hu
US President Barack Obama is likely to speak with Chinese President Hu Jintao within days about the Korean situation, a White House official said, though no date had been.

But a Chinese foreign ministry spokesperson said the focus should be placed on a revival of the stalled six-party talks grouping the two Koreas, Russia, China, Japan and the United States. He also expressed concern about the US-South Korea military exercises.

“We have noted the relevant reports and express our concern about this,” spokesperson Hong Lei said.

China has long propped up the Pyongyang leadership, worried that a collapse of North Korea could bring instability to its own borders. Beijing is also wary of a unified Korea that would be dominated by the United States.

Reclusive and unpredictable North Korea has defied international efforts to halt its nuclear ambitions. It fired shells at the island of Yeonpyeong off the peninsula’s west coast on Tuesday, killing two civilians and two soldiers and destroying dozens of houses.

The attack marked the first civilian deaths in an assault since the bombing of a South Korean airliner in 1987.

South Korean troops fired back 13 minutes later, causing unknown damage. Members of President Lee’s own party and opposition lawmakers accused the military of responding too slowly.

Hundreds of former South Korean soldiers held a protest rally in the border town of Paju on Friday, accusing the government of being too weak.

“The lazy government’s policies towards North Korea are too soft,” said Kim Byeong-su, the president of the association of ex-marines.

“It needs to take revenge on a bunch of mad dogs. We need to show them South Korea is not to be played with.”

The president accepted the defence minister’s resignation “to improve the atmosphere in the military and to handle the series of incidents”, a presidential official said.

Lee, tipped to be the new minister, is a career military man who advocates a “smart” military able to anticipate and react quickly to North Korea’s unpredictable moves.

He is experienced in military operations and is a former deputy deputy commander of the US-South Korea combined forces command, the cornerstone of Seoul’s defence policy and its relationship with its biggest ally. – Reuters

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