South Korea’s new defence chief talks tough

South Korea’s new defence minister has called for tougher action against North Korean attacks, local media reported, as tension mounted after an artillery exchange and with China and the United States getting drawn into the row.

A Seoul newspaper also reported the government plans to sharply increase defence spending next year.

“We need to deal with North Korea’s provocations strongly,” Defence Minister Kim Kwan-jin was quoted as telling presidential aides by the Chosun Ilbo newspaper. “We need to hit back multiple times as hard.”

The Korea Economic Daily said the government had proposed a 5,8% increase in the 2011 defence budget to about $27-billion to buy more self-propelled artillery and fighter-bombers, far more than the 3,6% rise this year.

It said Parliament could approve an even higher amount, given this week’s shelling by North Korean forces of a Southern island near the disputed maritime boundary.

Lawmakers have blasted President Lee Myung-bak’s government for not responding strongly enough. At least four people were killed on the island of Yeonpyeong in the biggest bombardment since the end of the 1950-53 Korean War. The defence minister resigned, taking responsibility, and Kim, a career soldier, was appointed in his place.

Regional giant China, reclusive North Korea’s only major ally, has said it is determined to prevent an escalation of the violence but warned against military acts near its coast as US and South Korean forces prepare for exercises in the Yellow Sea.

North Korea, stepping up its rhetoric, said the four-day naval drills starting on Sunday risked pushing the region towards war.

The US military said the exercises, planned long before Tuesday’s attack, were designed to deter North Korea and were not aimed at China.

The United States is sending an aircraft carrier group led by the nuclear-powered USS George Washington for the manoeuvres with South Korea.

“We’ve routinely operated in waters off the Korean peninsula for years,” said Captain Darryn James, a Pentagon spokesperson. “These latest provocations have been by the North and they need to take ownership of those, not us.”

‘Not a guy we can trust’
US Admiral Mike Mullen, chairperson of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said North Korea’s nuclear ambitions and leader Kim Jong-il’s unpredictability increased the threat of regional instability.

“It’s hard to know why China doesn’t push harder,” Mullen told CNN television’s Fareed Zakaria GPS in comments due to air on Sunday. “My sense is they try to control this guy. And I’m not sure he is controllable.

“He’s not a guy we can trust,” Mullen said. “That’s why the leadership aspect of this from China is so important, because if any country has influence in Pyongyang, it’s China.”

North Korea has entered an unpredictable period of leadership transition with the elevation of Kim Jong-il’s youngest son, Kim Jong-un, in September to the rank of general — in a clear sign he is the chosen successor.

Mullen has said he believes the artillery attack and the sinking in March of a South Korean warship, which the United States and South Korea blamed on the North, are likely linked to Kim Jong-il’s “posturing” to allow the eventual succession.

Calling for calm after the attack, Chinese Foreign Minister Yang Jiechi met North Korean ambassador Ji Jae Ryong in Beijing and talked by phone with US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and South Korean Foreign Minister Kim Sung-hwan.

“The top priority now is to keep the situation under control and to ensure such events do not happen again,” the Chinese Foreign Ministry said in a statement. – Reuters

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