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(LEAD) Angry lawmakers demand sacking military leaders for mishandling N.K. attack

All Headlines 16:48 November 25, 2010

(ATTN: UPDATES throughout with details)
By Shim Sun-ah, Lee Chi-dong

SEOUL, Nov. 25 (Yonhap) -- Ruling and opposition lawmakers on Thursday demanded the dismissal of the defense minister, military leaders and some presidential aides, insisting that the government fumbled its initial response to North Korea's artillery attack earlier this week.

The Lee Myung-bak administration, which took office on a pledge to get tough with Pyongyang, has come under growing public criticism that it has been too passive and lukewarm in countering the communist neighbor's bellicose behavior. Tuesday's bombardment of a populated island in the Yellow Sea was yet another reminder of the North's belligerence especially in that it targeted civilians. Two marines in their 20s and as many construction workers in their 60s were killed by the strike. The South's military immediately returned fire under the rules of engagement.

At the center of a controversy is the president's first public message on the attack.
Shortly after the North's mid-afternoon shelling on Tuesday, Lee convened an emergency meeting with his senior secretaries.

His spokeswoman Kim Hee-jung told reporters that Lee ordered the government to "well manage the situation to prevent the escalation" of the skirmish. The president's comments apparently set the tone for Seoul's response to Pyongyang's attack.

Amid reports of casualties and video footage of burning houses and forests on Yeonpyeong Island, Lee's office Cheong Wa Dae asked media hours later to change his comments to, "Deal resolutely (with the North's move) and make all-out efforts to prevent the situation from worsening."

In the evening press briefing Tuesday, senior Cheong Wa Dae secretary for public affairs Hong Sang-pyo said the president was misquoted as he did not directly order measures to stave off the escalation of the conflict.

But Defense Minister Kim Tae-young said in a parliamentary committee meeting Wednesday that the president's first instruction was to block the spread of the exchange of fire.

Cheong Wa Dae belatedly explained that it was indeed presidential aides who presented the opinion, not Lee. It remains unclear whether the president actually made the remarks or if it was just a communication mistake.

"The controversy (over Lee's comments at that time) is already abnormal," Kim Yong-kap, a standing advisor to the conservative governing Grand National Party (GNP) said in a radio program Thursday. "If presidential aides announced like that, they should be punished."

Defense Minister Kim should be fired for the operational failure again after the North's March 26 torpedo attack on a South Korean naval ship, he added. The sinking of the 1,200-ton Cheonan left 46 sailors dead.

A GNP lawmaker said on condition of anonymity, "The defense minister at least should have ordered a strike by (our) fighter jets on the enemy's bases. Then, the president's instruction should have followed to not let the situation escalate."

"The government's response was wrong," he added.

Park Jie-won, floor leader of the main opposition Democratic Party, leveled criticism at the Lee administration's policy on the North itself.

"There were no such unfortunate things for the 10 years under the past Democratic Party administration whose policy was resilient," he said. "The government promised to completely destroy (North Korea) if it opens fire, but it responded like this."

The government should be responsible for a "belated response and lax defense posture," he added.

Even some ranking government officials pointed out that the military lost a chance to retaliate for the Cheonan incident. "It is too late to do something on North Korea's attack as it would constitute a new provocation by South Korea," an official said, requesting anonymity.

Meanwhile, the National Assembly on Thursday unanimously adopted a resolution censuring North Korea for its artillery attack on Yeonpyeong Island and calling for tough government measures against future provocations by the communist state.

lcd@yna.co.kr
(END)

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