SKorea’s new army chief vows to beef up readiness

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SEOUL, South Korea (AP) — South Korea’s new army chief of staff vowed Friday to strengthen readiness to deal with any possible North Korean provocations amid heightened tensions after the deadly sinking of a warship Seoul and Washington blamed on Pyongyang.

South Korea has asked the U.N. Security Council to censure Pyongyang over the sinking. North Korea denies it was responsible and has warned any moves to punish it at the U.N. would lead to armed conflict and possibly nuclear war.

South Korea and the U.S. have urged Pyongyang to avoid provocations and vowed to hold the regime accountable for the March sinking of the warship Cheonan that killed 46 South Korean sailors.

“Our military is charged with a supreme task to maintain high readiness to sternly counter any North Korean provocations,” Gen. Hwang Eui-don said in his inauguration speech at military headquarters in Daejeon, south of Seoul.

He said he will ensure any provocations can be dealt with when they occur. On Thursday, he cautioned there is still a “considerable” possibility of provocation by the North given its history of attacks on the South, though he said North Korea has so far shown no signs of any unusual military activity.

He assumed the top army post following a recent reshuffle of four top officers amid criticisms that the military was negligent ahead of the sinking and mishandled it.

The Defense Ministry has accepted the retirement of the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff though it says Gen. Lee Sang-eui will stay until his successor is formally appointed.

Gen. Han Min-goo, the former army chief of staff, was named as the next JCS chairman. He must appear before a parliamentary confirmation hearing scheduled later this month, but lawmakers have no power to reject the nomination.

North Korea, meanwhile, kept up its harsh rhetoric Friday, with an official accusing South Korea of escalating tensions and repeating Pyongyang’s warning that the two sides are on the verge of war.

“This has pushed the inter-Korean relations to a total collapse and created such (a) tense situation on the Korean peninsula that a war may break out right now,” Choe Thae Bok, a top official in North Korea’s Workers’ Party, told a gathering in Pyongyang attended by senior party, military and government officials, according to the Korean Central News Agency.

The United States and South Korea expressed solidarity Thursday over the deadly sinking and vowed close cooperation. The two countries will demonstrate their resolve in a number of ways in coming days including at the U.N. Security Council, U.S. Assistant Secretary of State for East Asian and Pacific Affairs Kurt Campbell told reporters on a brief visit to Seoul.