North Korea lets fire after war warning

THE South’s new defence minister is expected to restore trust in the military.

NORTH Korea is believed to have fired more artillery shells near Yeonpyeong Island last night in a training drill after warning that the Korean peninsula is on “the brink of war”.

The move came as South Korea appointed a new Defence Minister, Kim Kwan-jin, former chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, to toughen its response after Tuesday’s fatal shelling of Yeonpyeong.

President Lee Myung-bak also moved to beef up weapons systems in the Yellow Sea islands and restore confidence in his government’s ability to deal with North Korean threats.

Kim Kwan-jin replaces Kim Tae-young, who was forced out amid criticism of the government’s passive response to Tuesday’s shelling. He had been on borrowed time since the March sinking of the patrol boat Cheonan, thought to be the work of a North Korean torpedo.

A spokesman for South Korea’s Joint Chiefs of Staff said the latest bout of firing yesterday had been a training exercise by the North and none of the six or so shells fired had landed in waters on either side of the Koreas’ Yellow Sea border or near Yeonpyeong Island. “The firing was not aimed at us, and we believe the sounds were heard as North Korea conducted its routine training,” Colonel Lee Bung-woo said.

Meanwhile, The USS George Washington sailed towards the Yellow Sea, amid muted protests from China, to join combined US-South Korean naval exercises, which start tomorrow.

North Korea denounced the drills earlier yesterday.

“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 the war exercises targeted against the DPRK,” said the North’s Korean Central News Agency.

The South Korean military responded to the North’s barrage on Yeonpyeong Island with artillery rather than missiles, as specified in the rules of engagement. But the North Korean howitzers were dug into caves on the coast about 12km from the island and could not be silenced with artillery shells.

The new Defence Minister is a 61-year-old former army general who headed the JCS, the peak defence authority in South Korea, between 2006 and 2008. Before that, he was in command of South Korea’s 3rd Army.

The President chose Kim Kwan-Jin for his “expertise and insight in the policy and strategy fields”, the presidential office said.

The new minister was expected “to restore people’s trust in the military and enhance military morale” by pushing through reforms and “sternly and quickly coping with the security crisis”.

South Korea’s Yonhap news agency reported yesterday that South Korea’s military was considering deploying guided missiles on Yeonpyeong and surrounding islands.

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