President calls for stern response to ship sinking
SEOUL, South Korea — South Korea's president called Monday for greater military readiness and a stern response to North Korea over the sinking of a warship or risk a repeat attack, as his top military officer stood down over the deadly incident.
South Korea has taken a slew of punitive measures against North Korea — including resuming propaganda operations — after blaming Pyongyang for torpedoing the South Korean warship Cheonan in March. Forty-six South Korean sailors died.
North Korea flatly denies the allegation and has warned any retaliation would trigger war. The country's military said Saturday it would launch an all-out strike against any South Korean propaganda facilities at the border such as loudspeakers and could even turn Seoul into "a sea of flame."
The North has made similar threats in the past. South Korea has reinstalled loudspeakers at the border after a six-year hiatus, but has yet to begin blaring propaganda.
On Monday, South Korean President Lee Myung-bak renewed calls for a strong response.
"If we fail to sternly respond to North Korea's wrongdoing in cooperation with the international community and build up solid military readiness, a second and third provocation like the Cheonan incident can occur anytime," he said in a nationally televised speech.
Lee also said he would revamp and strengthen South Korea's military and hold some officers responsible for the sinking.
On Monday, the Defense Ministry announced it had accepted the retirement of the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff — the country's top military officer. Gen. Lee Sang-eui offered to retire Sunday amid allegations of negligence ahead of the sinking. The Cheonan attack occurred along the two countries' disputed sea border — where three bloody sea battles have been fought.
Gen. Han Min-goo, the army chief of staff, was named to replace him, the ministry said. The appointment requires formal approval by President Lee's Cabinet.
On Thursday, South Korea's top audit agency told the defense minister to punish Lee and 24 other senior defense officials for failing to ensure combat readiness ahead of the March 26 sinking.
The audit body said the military had expected a North Korean submarine or submersible vessel could secretly attack a South Korean ship following a sea skirmish in the area in November and still failed to prevent the attack.
The two Koreas are still technically at war because their 1950-53 Korean War ended with an armistice, not a peace treaty.
The U.N. Security Council was set to review South Korea's request to punish the North, with Seoul officials scheduled to brief council members about the investigation results later Monday. North Korea also planned to explain its position on the sinking to council members right after South Korea, according to Seoul's Foreign Ministry.
"That was an outrageous act of aggression that we condemn and it needs to be punished," Susan Rice, the U.S. ambassador to the U.N., said in an interview aired on "Fox News Sunday" that was taped Saturday. "Our hearts go out to the families of the sailors whose lives were lost in that event."
Later Monday, former President Kim Young-sam told a Seoul forum the U.N. must punish the North over the sinking, saying the regime is a "serious threat" to South Korea. Kim, a conservative who grappled with the first North Korean nuclear crisis in the mid-1990s, said the U.N. must get "more actively" involved in North Korean affairs, including human rights.
Lee's speech was mainly meant to address major domestic issues including the ruling party's upset defeat in local elections earlier this month and a controversy over his plans to kill a project to relocate part of the government out of Seoul.
Associated Press Writer Sangwon Yoon and AP Television News cameraman Yong-ho Kim contributed to this report.