(ATTN: UPDATES with reports of a special security advisor to president being tapped as new defense minister in paras 7-9)
By Lee Chi-dong
SEOUL, Nov. 25 (Yonhap) -- Bowing to public pressure, President Lee Myung-bak decided Thursday to replace his defense minister accused of mishandling North Korea's deadly artillery attack earlier this week.
"In the afternoon today, President Lee decided to accept Defense Minister Kim Tae-young's resignation offer," presidential chief of staff Yim Tae-hee said in a press briefing.
The minister publicly expressed his intention to step down in May after North Korea was found to have torpedoed a 1,200-ton South Korean warship, the Cheonan, which led to the deaths of 46 sailors.
Yim said the president had delayed a decision on whether to accept his resignation offer due to a host of pending issues including annual defense ministerial talks between Seoul and Washington.
But Kim came under growing calls to step down again amid criticism that his military fumbled its initial response to the North's shelling Tuesday of Yeonpyeong Island, a populated island in the Yellow Sea, a long-time flash point between the two Koreas that remain technically at war as their 1950-53 war ended in a truce. Tuesday's assault 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.
Yim said the president's decision to replace the minister is meant to hold him responsible for a series of recent accidents involving troops and to inject fresh air into the troubled military.
Yim said Cheong Wa Dae plans to announce Kim's replacement on Friday, with sources saying Lee Hee-won, a special security advisor to the president, will likely be named the new defense minister.
The sources, speaking on condition of anonymity, said the presidential office is expected to hold a mock confirmation hearing Friday before finalizing the decision.
The outgoing minister, in the meantime, will continue his work until his successor takes office after a parliamentary hearing. In South Korea, every nominee to a cabinet post has to go through a parliamentary hearing, but is not required to win the National Assembly's approval for appointment.
Kim Byoung-gi, presidential secretary for defense affairs, will be replaced as well, Yim said.
Earlier in the day, ruling and opposition lawmakers ratcheted up their calls for the dismissal of the defense minister, other military leaders and some presidential aides.
Critics have accused the Lee administration, which took office on a pledge to get tough with Pyongyang, of taking a kid-glove approach toward the communist neighbor's bellicose behavior. They claim the North's provocations show loopholes in national security.
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 overall 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 the 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 said in a parliamentary committee meeting Wednesday that the president's first instruction was to block the spread of the exchange of fire. Kim added he believed the president made the right choice.
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."
The defense minister should be fired for another operational failure after the Cheonan case, he added.
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 to prevent the situation from escalating should have followed."
"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.
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