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South Korea Defense Minister Offers Resignation Over Information Leak - 2004-07-27


South Korea's Defense Minister has offered to resign, following the leak of sensitive information about a naval clash with North Korea a few weeks ago. It appears the Ministry misrepresented key facts surrounding that skirmish. Defense Minister Cho Young-Kil announced his resignation and was quoted as saying he did not want to "burden" the president and "confuse" the people over this issue any longer.

The minister's decision was prompted by a naval skirmish two weeks ago when the South Korean navy fired warning shots at a North Korean patrol boat that strayed into disputed waters in the Yellow Sea.

Since then there have been questions about exactly what happened, the military's handling of the incident and a possible cover-up of its mistakes.

Professor Kim Jong Wang of Seoul's Sejong Institute, says there was pressure for an investigation and a possible ministry shake-up.

"The president was upset by this and there were leading politicians that asked for not only investigations, but if there was wrong doing that people should be punished for what they had done," he said.

The Joint Chiefs in Seoul initially said the North Korean patrol boat ignored repeated warnings by radio. But, official radio transcripts leaked to the media by South Korea's intelligence director, told a different tale.

Those records revealed there was radio contact and that the North Korean patrol boat falsely identified itself as a Chinese fishing boat. Five military officers were reprimanded for not disclosing the ship-to-ship contacts.

On Monday, Defense Minister Cho responded to mounting pressure and fired the intelligence chief who leaked the classified reports.

Mr. Cho's resignation will be submitted to the president who is expected to accept the offer.

The two Koreas recently signed an agreement establishing shared radio signals at sea. The move was intended to prevent naval clashes along their maritime border.

Professor Kim Jong Wang says the controversy highlights broader disagreements between South Korea's military and the country's civilian government.

"There is conflict between those officers directly in the front lines who feel that if they see North Korea doing something then South Korea should promptly take the appropriate response, versus the president that would like to see a lessening of tension and continuation of engagement policy with North Korea," said Kim Jong Wang.

South Korea was ruled by a series of military and authoritarian governments for more than three decades, until the democratic reforms of the late 1980's. The military's traditional hard-line approach towards communist North Korea has gradually given way to peaceful negotiation and moves toward reconciliation.

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