Seoul: North Korea warned on Friday that planned US-South Korean military drills are pushing the peninsula to the brink of war as a US military commander headed to an island devastated this week by a North Korean artillery barrage.
North Korea`s state news agency said drills this weekend involving South Korean forces and a US nuclear powered supercarrier in waters south of Tuesday`s skirmish between the rival Koreas are a reckless plan by "trigger-happy elements" and that the manoeuvres target the North.
"The situation on the Korean peninsula is inching closer to the brink of war," the dispatch from the Korean Central News Agency said.
The comments came ahead of a planned visit Friday by General Walter Sharp, the US military commander in South Korea, to the island targeted by the North Korean attack to show solidarity with ally Seoul.
South Korea names new defense minister
South Korean President Lee Myung-bak appointed his security adviser as new defense minister on Friday, Korean media reported, as tensions rise after the deadly artillery attack by North Korea.
Lee Hee-Won, 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 replaces Kim Tae-young, who quit on Thursday after criticism about the pace of Seoul`s response to the shelling by North Korean forces on Tuesday of an island near their disputed maritime boundary in the Yellow Sea.
The President accepted his minister`s resignation "to improve the atmosphere in the military and to handle the series of incidents”, a presidential official said.
Media have described Lee as experienced in military operations and well versed in cooperating with the armed forces of the United States, South Korea`s biggest ally.
The US aircraft carrier group led by the nuclear-powered USS George Washington was on its way to participate in Yellow Sea exercises with the South Korean Navy starting from Sunday.
Although planned before this week`s attack, the four-day maneuvers are a show of strength which could enrage North Korea and has already unsettled its major ally and neighbor, China.
Washington is putting pressure on China to rein in North Korea and ease the tension in the world`s fastest-growing region.
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 set for the call.
But a Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman 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," spokesman Hong Lei said.
"The exercises will be held on Sunday as planned and George Washington is on its way here to arrive on Sunday, but I wouldn`t say that it is nowhere near here at the moment," a spokesman for US Forces Korea said on Friday.
North Korea vows new action
Pyongyang has not commented on the exercises but said in typically aggressive language on Thursday it would "wage second and even third rounds of attacks without any hesitation if warmongers in South Korea make reckless military provocations again”.
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, one of Pyongyang`s heaviest since the Korean War ended in 1953, 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 Lee`s own party and opposition lawmakers accused the military of responding too slowly.
Beijing has in the past used stronger language to criticise military exercises in the region. In August, the People`s Liberation Army said earlier plans to send the George Washington to the Yellow Sea would make it lose respect and threatened long-term damage to Sino-US relations.
Seoul expressed frustration with Beijing for not taking sides, noting even Russia had condemned this week`s attack.
"We must engage with China for it to take more responsibility on North Korea`s behavior," said a government official, who asked not to be identified.
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.
North Korea said the shelling was in self-defense after Seoul fired shells into its waters. The South Korean government official said the attack on Yeonpyeong island could only have been ordered by North Korean leader Kim Jong-Il.
Just hours before the attack, Kim and his youngest son and designated heir, Jong-Un, visited the Yellow Sea coastal artillery base from where the shells were fired at Yeonpyeong, South Korean media reported.
The South Korea official said the attack was also designed to promote the military credentials of Kim`s son, recently and rapidly promoted from obscurity to the post of to the upcoming succession in North Korea`s leadership.
(With Agencies’ inputs)