Minister quits amid criticism of reaction to North Korea's attack

The fallout from this week's deadly artillery exchange on the Korean peninsula continued yesterday when the South's Defence Minister Kim Tae Young quit after coming under heavy political attack at home for his response to the incident.

Mr Kim took full responsibility for the government's handling of the incident in his resignation statement, which has been seen as too passive. Conservatives around President Lee Myung-bak are demanding a tougher response to what they see as a string of North Korean provocations. The government is now changing its rules of engagement to allow it to react more aggressively if civilians were attacked in future.

South Korea's parliament passed a resolution this week strongly condemning the North's "act of invasion", which it called "unparalleled" since the end of the war. "The ROK National Assembly confirms that the responsibility for all results caused by this lie completely in North Korea's hands."

Analysts are still struggling to interpret the latest assault. Pyongyang has promised more attacks unless it ceases what the North's Stalinist leadership calls its "reckless provocation" on the divided peninsula, a threat which comes as American and South Korean forces prepare for another huge military exercise in the Yellow Sea.

Observers warn that the weekend drills, in which the US aircraft carrier USS George Washington will take part, could spark more conflict. "North Korea may use the exercises as a pretext for another attack," Victor Cha said on his website. Mr Cha is the Korea chair at the Washington DC-based Center for Strategic and International Studies.

A statement released by the state-run Korean Central News Agency said the North's military would "deal without hesitation a second and third strong physical retaliatory blow" against the South and blamed the US for creating the tension.

China, North Korea's only ally in the region, has urged "maximum restraint" on both sides as fears mounted that the crisis could escalate. "China has all along devoted itself to maintaining the peninsula's peace and stability, and opposed military provocations," said Premier Wen Jiabao during a visit to Russia.