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]|
South Korea has laid to rest two marines who were killed during a North Korean artillery strike near a disputed maritime border, as tensions continue to rise on the peninsula.
Dignitaries and relatives at the funeral ceremony on Saturday placed white flowers at the alters for Sergeant Seo Jeong-woo and Private Moon Gwang-wuk, who were killed in Tuesday’s strike on South Korea’s Yeonpyeong island.
Two civilian construction workers also died during the attack.
The funeral comes as South Korea gears up for joint military manoeuvres with the US beginning on Sunday. The US is preparing to send a nuclear-powered aircraft carrier to South Korean waters for the military drills in the Yellow Sea.
However, the North, which sees the drills as a major military provocation, unleashed its anger over the planned exercises in a dispatch on Friday.
“The situation on the Korean peninsula is inching closer to the brink of war,” a statement in the North’s official Korean Central News Agency said.
North Korea’s army and people are “now greatly enraged” and “getting fully ready to give a shower of dreadful fire,” the statement said.
As tensions mount, South Korea and the US have appealed to China to use its influence on North Korea to ease worries of war.
Yang Jiechi, China’s foreign minister, held phone talks with Hillary Clinton, the US secretary of state, 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.
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.
The US later 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.
New defence minister
Meanwhile, South Korea 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.
“[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.
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.”