South Korea’s defence minister has resigned amid intense criticism two days after a North Korean artillery attack killed four people on a small island near the Koreas’ disputed frontier.
The move came as President Lee Myung-bak vowed to send more troops to the frontline South Korean island of Yeonpyeong as residents tried to salvage belongings from the blackened wreckage of their homes. Pyongyang warned of additional attacks if provoked.
Hours before Defence Minister Kim Tae-young’s resignation, MPs had lashed out at the government, claiming officials were unprepared for Tuesday’s attack and that the military response to the North’s barrage was too slow. Even those in Lee’s ruling party demanded Kim’s dismissal as well as those of military leaders and some presidential aides.
Lee accepted Kim’s resignation and a new defence chief will be announced on Friday, presidential chief of staff Yim Tae-hee said.
Skirmishes between the Korean militaries are not uncommon, but North Korea’s heavy bombardment of Yeonpyeong Island was the first on a civilian area, raising fears of an escalation that could lead to a new war on the Korean peninsula. South Korean troops had returned fire and scrambled fighter jets in response.
Seoul and Washington ratcheted up pressure on China to rein in its ally North Korea, and China has urged both sides to show restraint.
Reporters allowed for the first time on to the island found streets strewn with broken glass and charred debris. Blackened beer bottles lay beside what was left of a supermarket as coastguard officers patrolled in pairs past deserted offices and schools used by relief workers for meetings and meals.
Many residents fled as quickly as they could, but restaurant owner Lee In-ku, 46, joined a handful of villagers trying to salvage belongings from half-destroyed homes.
“It was a sea of fire,” Lee said of Tuesday’s attack. “Many houses were burning and many people were just running around in confusion. It was real chaos.”
At an emergency meeting in Seoul, President Lee ordered top-level weapons for troops manning the tense Yellow Sea, a presidential aide said.