S Korea nominates new defence minister, amid reports of conflict escalation with fresh artillery fire by the North.
|South Korea has ordered more troops to be deployed at Yeonpyeong island following Tuesday’s shelling [GALLO/GETTY]|
Beijing has held talks with Washington, Seoul and Pyongyang on the tense situation following North Korea’s deadly bombardment of a South Korean island, the Chinese foreign ministry has said.
China’s foreign minister Yang Jiechi held phone talks with US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton on Friday. He also spoke to his South Korean counterpart and met Pyongyang’s ambassador to Beijing to discuss the situation.
Precise details of what was discussed were not given, but the official Chinese news agency Xinhua said North and South Korea and the United States elaborated their positions on the situation.
Washington and Seoul have both appealed to Beijing to use its influence to rein in its wayward ally, but Beijing has so far refused to take sides, merely calling for “restraint” from all parties.
Yang urged Seoul and Pyongyang to exercise calm and restraint and solve problems through dialogue, a ministry statement said, according to Xinhua.
“The pressing task now is to put the situation under control and prevent a recurrence of similar incidents,” he said.
The United States and South Korea are planning joint naval exercises in the Yellow Sea on Sunday as a show of force against Beijing’s ally North Korea, prompting criticism from China.
Earlier on Friday, Beijing warned against military activity in its exclusive economic zone, echoing remarks it made a day earlier opposing the US-South Korean war games.
Wen Jiabao, the Chinese prime minister, in the first highest-level Chinese response to North Korea’s attack, said that China opposes military provocations in any form.
“China has all along devoted itself to maintaining the peninsula’s peace and stability, and opposed military provocations in any forms,” he said during a visit to Russia on Wednesday.
The US later on Friday sought to reassure China, insisting that the war games were “not directed at Beijing”.
“The Chinese government was informed of our intent to conduct this naval exercise in the areas west of the Korean Peninsula,” said Pentagon spokesman Darryn James.
“It is important to point out that this exercise is not directed at China. As with previous exercises in this series, these operations are defensive in nature and designed to strengthen deterrence against North Korea,” he said.
China said it was paying close attention to Tuesday’s incident, which left four people dead and prompted retaliatory fire from the South, and was very concerned about the development of the situation.
It also urged an early restart of six-nation talks to end North Korea’s atomic ambitions, reiterating the call China made on Tuesday.
The North has justified its firing as retaliation, claiming South Korea lobbed shells into its waters during an exercise, and on Friday warned Seoul that Sunday’s naval military exercises with the US would bring the two neighbours to the “brink of war”.
The stark warning came as sounds of distant artillery fire were heard from within North Korea on Friday. A Reuters witness said he saw smoke rising from inland North Korea.
South Korea’s YTN television said the shells appeared to have landed north of a disputed maritime border in North Korean waters, and the military does not believe the firing was aimed at the South.
Some South Korean legislators, meanwhile, said the military should have responded more ruthlessly, by staging an air strike on the North’s artillery batteries.
New defence minister
Meanwhile, South Korea has named its former chairman of the joint chiefs of staff as the new defence minister, amid growing criticism of the government’s response to a deadly attack by North Korea.
General Kim Kwan-jin, a 61-year-old career soldier, is replacing Kim Tae-young, who resigned on Thursday – two days after the attack on the small South Korean island of Yeonpyeong left four people, including two marines, dead.
|The South Korean defence minister was held responsible for the response to the North Korean attack [AFP]|
“[We] think nominee Kim, well-respected for professionalism and conviction, is the right person for the post in order to restore trust from people and boost morale in the entire military,” Hong Sang-pyo, the presidential secretary, told a news briefing on Friday.
Earlier reports had suggested Lee Hee-Won, a security aide, would succeed Kim. But the office of Lee Myung-bak, the South Korean president, said several candidates were undergoing rigorous checks.
Kim’s appointment came hours after North Korea said that impending military exercises by the South and the United States were pushing the region towards conflict.
Al Jazeera’s Wayne Hay, reporting from Seoul, said that Kim, who is also a former army general, has “clearly been brought in to shake things up in the South Korean military”.
“He has been brought in because of his 40 years of experience in the military and strong leadership skills.”
Tit for tat
South Korean officials said Tuesday’s attack was the first shelling of civilian areas in the South since the end of the 1950-53 Korean War.
The government said it would increase troops near the disputed sea border off its west coast following the attacks.
The military in Seoul said it will revise its rules of engagement to respond more strongly to North Korean attacks in the future.
But North Korea’s KCNA news agency said Pyongyang will launch more attacks if South Korea continues with “reckless provocations”.
“[North Korea] will wage second and even third rounds of attacks without any hesitation, if warmongers in South Korea make reckless military provocations again,” the agency said, quoting from a military statement.