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South Korea Top Army Officer Steps Down Over Ship Sinking

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SEOUL, South Korea — South Korea's president called Monday for greater military readiness and a stern response to North Korea over the sinking of a warship or risk a repeat attack, as his top military officer stood down over the deadly incident.

South Korea has taken a slew of punitive measures against North Korea – including resuming propaganda operations – after blaming Pyongyang for torpedoing the South Korean warship Cheonan in March. Forty-six South Korean sailors died.

North Korea flatly denies the allegation and has warned any retaliation would trigger war. The country's military said Saturday it would launch an all-out strike against any South Korean propaganda facilities at the border such as loudspeakers and could even turn Seoul into "a sea of flame."

The North has made similar threats in the past. South Korea has reinstalled loudspeakers at the border after a six-year hiatus, but has yet to begin blaring propaganda.

On Monday, South Korean President Lee Myung-bak renewed calls for a strong response. Later in the day, the U.N. Security Council was due to hear briefings from both Koreas on the incident.

"If we fail to sternly respond to North Korea's wrongdoing in cooperation with the international community and build up solid military readiness, a second and third provocation like the Cheonan incident can occur anytime," Lee said in a nationally televised speech.

Lee also said he would revamp and strengthen South Korea's military and hold some officers responsible for the sinking.

On Monday, the Defense Ministry announced it had accepted the retirement of the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff – the country's top military officer. Gen. Lee Sang-eui offered to retire Sunday amid allegations of negligence ahead of the sinking. The Cheonan attack occurred along the two countries' disputed sea border – where three bloody sea battles have been fought.

Gen. Han Min-goo, the army chief of staff, was named to replace him, the ministry said. The appointment requires formal approval by President Lee's Cabinet.

On Thursday, South Korea's top audit agency told the defense minister to punish Lee and 24 other senior defense officials for failing to ensure combat readiness ahead of the March 26 sinking.

The audit body said the military had expected a North Korean submarine or submersible vessel could secretly attack a South Korean ship following a sea skirmish in the area in November and still failed to prevent the attack.

The two Koreas are still technically at war because their 1950-53 Korean War ended with an armistice, not a peace treaty.

The U.N. Security Council was scheduled to hear separate closed-door briefings Monday on the South Korean investigation into the ship sinking and from North Korea, which has denied any involvement.

Mexico's U.N. Ambassador Claude Heller, the current council president, said last week that he hopes members can start exchanging ideas this week on "a response in an appropriate manner" to the ship sinking.

South Korea has asked the Security Council to "respond in a manner appropriate to the gravity of North Korea's military provocation."

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Associated Press Writer Sangwon Yoon and AP Television News cameraman Yong-ho Kim in Seoul, and Edith Lederer at the United Nations contributed to this report.

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