(ATTN: UPDATES with S. Korea issuing travel advisory for Japan, background in paras 3-5)
SEOUL, March 13 (Yonhap) -- South Korea was to send a large team of rescue workers to Japan aboard Air Force planes on Sunday as the neighboring nation struggled to cope with the aftermath of the worst earthquake and tsunami ever to hit the country.
South Korea has also redirected some of its incoming shipments of liquefied natural gas (LNG) to send them to Japan to help address potential energy shortages after some nuclear power plants shut down following Friday's quake and tsunami, officials said.
A magnitude 8.9 quake struck Japan on Friday, unleashing a gigantic tsunami that swept ships, cars and homes away in the worst natural disaster to hit the country in recorded history. By official count, about 2,300 people were killed or missing, but media reports say the number could be much higher, even over 20,000.
Japan also wrestled with the threat of possible meltdowns of two nuclear reactors at a power plant damaged by the quake after an explosion on Saturday blew off the roof and walls around one of the reactors at the plant in Fukushima, 240 kilometers north of Tokyo.
Seoul issued a series of travel advisories for Japan, putting areas within 30 kilometers of the plant under the second-highest advisory, Level 3, that calls for citizens to avoid traveling there as much as possible. A Level 2 advisory was issued for provinces around the plant, and a Level 1 advisory was issued for Tokyo and nearby Chiba.
It was the first time South Korea has issued a travel advisery for Tokyo.
The 102-member South Korean rescue team, which also includes six medical workers and an eight-person support staff, was to depart at around 11:30 p.m. on three Air Force C-130 planes from a military airport in Seongnam, south of Seoul, Vice Foreign Minister Min Dong-seok told reporters.
On Saturday, South Korea sent an advance team of five rescue workers to Japan.
Seoul plans to send more search and rescue specialists after consultations with Japan, officials said. The government is also in talks with Japan's government and civilian groups to send water and other relief supplies, the officials said.
The rescue team plans to work in northeastern Japan, which was hit hardest by Friday's earthquake and tsunami that, according to media reports, are believed to have left at least 10,000 people dead or missing.
The scale of South Korean casualties in the disaster remained unclear. But at least 60 people from 21 South Korean households in the coastal regions of Japan have remained out of contact since the disaster, officials said.
Vice Foreign Minister Min also said the government is trying to check if there are any South Koreans among 200-300 bodies found along the coast of the northeastern region of Sendai, one of the hardest-hit regions.
About 100 people are taking shelter at South Korea's diplomatic mission in Sendai, he said.
Seoul was also on the lookout for a possible impact from a radiation leak at the Fukushima power plant, with officials from related agencies holding a meeting Sunday to assess the possibility of radiation reaching South Korea and discuss countermeasures.
Radiation has leaked from the damaged plant. UP to 190 people could have been exposed to the leak, according to media reports. On Sunday, thousands of people were evacuated from the area amid fears of a meltdown of two nuclear reactors at the plant.
South Korea's state meteorological agency said it sees low chances of radiation spreading across the East Sea to the country because of the westerly wind in high altitudes that keeps blowing from the west toward Japan.
Still, officials said they are watching the situation very closely.
"We're in a situation where we have to watch the situation very closely as radioactive substances have been detected and the number of those exposed to radiation is on the rise," an official said on the condition of anonymity.
Also on Sunday, Finance Minister Yoon Jeung-hyun presided over a meeting of 16 government agencies to assess the disaster's impact on South Korea's economy.
Yoon said the catastrophe is expected to have limited effects on Seoul's economy, but that the situation requires closer monitoring because of high uncertainties.
"As higher oil prices are increasing economic uncertainties and Japan is grappling with the impact of the quake, we need to consistently keep an eye on developments. If necessary, we need to be proactive to minimize the negative impact of the disaster on the Korean economy," he said.
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