S.Korean army chief quits amid N.Korea tensions

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South Korea's army chief resigned Tuesday, reportedly over a property investment, at a time of high tensions with North Korea following its deadly artillery attack last month.

A defence ministry spokesman told AFP that General Hwang Eui-Don's resignation had been accepted but gave no details. The presidential office also declined to say why Hwang quit.

Yonhap news agency said the general, who was named to his current post in June, had become embroiled in a controversy over capital gains through a property investment.

"General Hwang offered to retire following media reports about his property investment, because he judged it was inappropriate for him to stay in the post at a time when he has to lead reform of the army," it quoted an unidentified defence ministry official as saying.

The resignation is a further blow to the South's military, which was widely criticised for its perceived feeble response to the North's bombardment of an island near the disputed Yellow Sea border on November 23.

Defence minister Kim Tae-Young resigned after the shelling, which killed four people including two civilians. It was the first attack on a civilian area in the South since the 1950-53 war and sparked a regional crisis.

The South fired 80 artillery rounds at the North's artillery batteries in response but did not call in air strikes. The military has said it will use air power next time.

The bombardment was launched less than two weeks after the North disclosed an apparently operational uranium enrichment plant to visiting US experts.

It said the operation was intended to fuel a nuclear power plant. But senior US and other officials fear it could be reconfigured to produce weapons-grade uranium, to augment the North's current plutonium stockpile.

Russia's Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, at a meeting Monday with his visiting North Korean counterpart Pak Ui-Chun, "expressed his deep concern about information about the industrial uranium enrichment capability", Moscow's foreign ministry said.

Lavrov urged North Korea to comply with UN Security Council resolutions banning such activities, and called for a resumption of six-party talks aimed at negotiating an end to the North's nuclear programmes.

Russia is one of the six countries involved in the stalled talks alongside the two Koreas, China, Japan and the United States.

China, the North's sole major ally, has called for a new meeting of six-party envoys to resolve the latest crisis.

But the United States, Japan and South Korea have responded coolly, saying a return to negotiations at this point could reward the North's aggression.

They want China, which has failed publicly to condemn its ally for the island attack, to take a tougher line with the North. US Deputy Secretary of State James Steinberg is to visit Beijing this week to press for stronger action.

As part of a flurry of regional diplomacy, South Korea's chief nuclear envoy is scheduled to visit Russia for talks.

And New Mexico Governor Bill Richardson will visit North Korea from December 16 to 20, on what is billed as a private trip, to try to calm tensions.

The North, for its part, Tuesday repeated assertions that its new programme is peaceful.

"The business of peacefully developing nuclear energy and using it is happening in our country, in line with the international trend," said ruling communist party newspaper Rodong Sinmun.

"Peaceful nuclear activity is a sovereign right of all nations."

© 2010 AFP

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