(ATTN: ADDS Army official's comment, background from para 4; RECASTS lead; AMENDS headline)
SEOUL, Dec. 14 (Yonhap) -- The chief of the Army stepped down Tuesday following criticism over his controversial property investment, officials said, amid heightened tensions with North Korea after its fatal artillery attack last month.
Army Chief of Staff Gen. Hwang Eui-don submitted his application for retirement to the office of President Lee Myung-bak earlier in the day, and Lee accepted it, an official at the defense ministry said on condition of anonymity.
"Gen. Hwang offered to retire following media reports about his property investment because he judged it was inappropriate for him to stay on the post at a time when he has to lead the reform of the Army," the official said.
An official at the Army said, "Gen. Hwang decided to retire because he feels responsible for causing worries to the Army as a result of his personal matter."
The resignation came less than a week after Hwang became embroiled in a controversy after he was found to have made huge capital gains through a property investment based on an early tip he allegedly obtained that building regulations would be eased.
Months after Hwang purchased a building in Yongsan, central Seoul, in 2002, the defense ministry eased the height limit for buildings in the Yongsan area, sparking a steep rise in property prices.
Although Hwang served as chief spokesman for the ministry at the time of the property transaction, Army officials denied allegations, saying Hwang did not know of the ministry's plan to ease height limits.
Hwang was named to the top Army post in June when the military was under fire for mishandling North Korea's alleged torpedo attack on a South Korean warship in March, in which 46 sailors died.
Eight months after the torpedo attack, North Korea bombarded the South Korean island of Yeonpyeong near the tense Yellow Sea border on Nov. 23, killing four people, including two civilians. It was the first strike by the North on a civilian area in the South since the end of the 1950-53 Korean War.
Meanwhile, a source at the ministry had said Gen. Han Min-koo, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff (JCS), also expressed his intent to retire, but Defense Minister Kim Kwan-jin persuaded him not to.
Col. Lee Bung-woo, a JCS spokesman, quickly denied the source's remark, saying, "It's not true that Gen. Han expressed intention to retire."
The JCS chairman has been under fire for what many politicians say was a feeble response to North Korea's bombardment of Yeonpyeong Island.
North Korea shelled the island with 170 rounds of artillery, and the South returned fire with 80 rounds, but didn't use its air power. Defense Minister Kim has vowed to bomb the North with fighter jets in the case of further attacks.
The South's military has remained on high alert since the North's island attack and is in the midst of live-fire drills off its coasts
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