Friday, October 2, 2009

SKorea launches missile boats to guard NKorea border

South Korea Wednesday launched two new high-speed patrol boats armed with missiles to guard the border with North Korea, as the incoming defence minister warned of ongoing military tensions.

The defence ministry said the 400-ton boats -- the Han Sang Guk and the Jo Cheon Hyeong -- made their debut in the southern port city of Jinhae.

They were named after soldiers killed in a 2002 naval clash with North Korea and equipped with guided missiles with a range of up to 140 kilometres (84 miles).

The first boat of the new class was deployed in early June amid high tensions along the western sea border -- the scene of deadly naval clashes in 1999 as well as in 2002.

In 2002 six South Korean soldiers died and 18 others were wounded while more than 30 North Korean soldiers were killed or wounded.

North Korea refuses to recognise the current western sea border and wants it moved further to the south.

The latest boats, to be deployed in the Yellow Sea as early as September next year, have a maximum speed of 74 km per hour and can carry 40 crew.

After months of hostility including missile and nuclear tests, Pyongyang began making peace noises to Washington and Seoul in August.

South Korean officials have expressed scepticism about the overtures, saying the nuclear-armed state has not changed its fundamental attitude.

In his swearing-in speech Wednesday, new defence minister Kim Tae-Young vowed to maintain tight defence readiness, saying instability could arise at any time in the North.

"Military tension persists on the Korean peninsula while instability can arise at any time in North Korea," he said, calling for a "solid" alliance with the United States.

The North has quit six-party nuclear disarmament talks and seeks direct negotiations with the United States. Washington says these are possible, but only in order to bring Pyongyang back to the six-nation negotiations.

The two Koreas have remained technically at war since their 1950-1953 conflict. About 655,000 South Korean soldiers, backed by 28,500 US troops, face a potential threat from the North's 1.2 million-strong military.

Meanwhile, a top Pyongyang defector has said that China must drop its support for North Korean leader Kim Jong-Il to pave the way for economic reforms there and eventual reunification with South Korea.

"It's necessary to call China to account for maintaining an alliance with Kim Jong-Il," Wednesday's Chosun Ilbo newspaper quoted Hwang Jang-Yop as saying.

Hwang, former secretary of the North's ruling communist party and an ex-tutor of Kim, defected during a trip to Beijing in 1997 and now lives under police guard in the South.

"Reunification can be discussed in 15 to 20 years if North Korea opens its doors and carries out Chinese-style reforms, and if South Korean funds and engineers are allowed access there," the newspaper quoted him as saying at a gathering Tuesday.

Hwang said living standards in the impoverished North would improve dramatically within 15 years after a market-opening, but economic reforms were also tantamount to getting rid of absolute rule.

"It is China in the end that decides Kim Jong-Il's fate. South Korea must sign a free trade pact with China to draw China and North Korea apart," he was quoted as saying.

Hwang described Kim as a "national traitor" and added: "At the moment, no Chinese leaders think favourably of Kim Jong-Il."

He blamed the "sunshine" aid and engagement policy of previous liberal governments in Seoul for the slow pace of change in the North. The current conservative government has dropped the policy.


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