SEOUL (Reuters) – North Korea is highly likely to attack South Korea again, the South's spy chief said on Wednesday, as a flotilla of American warships led by an aircraft carrier left South Korean waters after a deadly attack.
"There is a high possibility that the North will make an additional attack," Won Sei-hoon, director of the National Intelligence Service, told a parliamentary committee meeting.
The South's Defense Minister, Kim Tae-young, has also warned there was an "ample possibility" the North might stage another provocation once a U.S.-South Korea exercise ended on Wednesday.
Won said wire-taps in August indicated Pyongyang was preparing for an attack off the west coast designed to smooth the way for Kim Jong-il's son to take over as leader, Yonhap news agency reported.
"In August this year, we confirmed North Korea's plan to attack five islands in the West Sea through wiretapping," he said. "We didn't expect the (North's) shelling on civilians, as North Korea has often made threatening remarks.
Last week, North Korea fired a barrage of artillery rounds at Yeonpyeong island in the first such attack on civilians on South Korean soil since the end of the 1950-53 Korean war. Two civilians were among the four killed.
Analysts say the attack was an attempt to force the resumption of international negotiations that could bring it aid, or could be seen as an attempt to boost the militaristic credentials of the country's leader-in-waiting, Kim Jong-un.
Won said the attack on Yeonpyeong island came as "internal complaints are growing about the North's succession for a third generation (of Kim family rule), and its economic situation is worsening."
Kim Jong-un is the youngest son of ailing leader Kim Jong-il.
CHINA STANDS BY NORTH
China steadfastly stood by its ally, North Korea, on Wednesday, refusing to bow to international pressure and condemn its actions at the United Nations.
Beijing said it would not favor any side but wanted to help resolve the dispute as a "responsible great power."
China, North Korea's only powerful ally, protected Pyongyang from censure by the U.N. Security Council for last week's deadly bombardment of Yeonpyeong, an attack many analysts believe was an attempt to force the resumption of international negotiations that could bring it aid.
"Our general goal is for all sides to exercise calm and restraint and to make every effort to avoid such incidents recurring," Chinese Foreign Minister Yang Jiechi said as South Korea planned further military drills for next week after U.S. warships leave Wednesday.
"Since the exchange of fire between North and South Korea, China has made a series of efforts to prevent the situation from escalating and deteriorating. China decides its position based on the merits of each case and does not seek to protect any side," Yang said.
Yang spoke as Chen Zhili, vice-chairperson of the Standing Committee of the National People's Congress, met a delegation from North Korea. China wants to hold an emergency meeting of the six regional powers, but the proposal has met with a lukewarm response.
An attempt by France and Britain to push the U.N. Security Council to condemn North Korea's nuclear program and the attack on Yeonpyeong was on the verge of collapse because of China's unwillingness to apportion blame, envoys said.
The reason for the virtual breakdown of talks on two Security Council statements to rebuke Pyongyang was China's demand for removal of words such as "condemn" and "violation."
The United States and South Korea are pressing China, which has not blamed North Korea for the island attack or for the sinking of a South Korean naval vessel in March, to do more to rein in its ally.
Meanwhile, a four-day show-of-force military exercise with the United States, which included the aircraft carrier USS George Washington, concluded and the vessels headed to another joint maneuver with Japan.
There were no further attacks and markets were assuaged.
Wednesday, stocks ended up 1 percent and the won currency was up 0.7 percent, but credit default swaps rose to a three-month high Wednesday, Reuters data showed, indicating continued risk concerns.
"People know that it's not the end and North Korea can come out again any time after the exercise ends with a sort of violations," said a foreign exchange trader at a Singaporean bank in Seoul.
South Korea is planning further artillery drills, "including waters close to the Yellow Sea border (with the North)" starting Monday, Yonhap said.
Oil traders, meanwhile, said the U.S. Navy was seeking a medium-range oil tanker to move at least 30,000 tons of jet fuel from Japan to South Korea, suggesting it was stockpiling.[nL3E6N108J]
The route is unusual for jet fuel, but the U.S. military said such shipments were standard for operational use.
Nearly 30,000 U.S. troops are based in South Korea, which is still technically at war with the North, having only signed a truce to end fighting in the 1950-53 war.
(Additional reporting by Yoo Choonsik and Yeonhee Kim in Seoul; and Louis Charbonneau at the United Nations; Writing by Nick Macfie; Editing by Ron Popeski)