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S. Korea joins rescue work, readying more assistance

S. Korea sends 102-member rescue team to devastated areas

Seoul has accepted a request to divert liquefied natural gas to Japanese power companies to help fight power shortages in the wake of Friday’s earthquake.

Several of Japan’s nuclear power plants have been out of commission following the earthquake that ravaged the country’s northeastern coastal region.

The state-run Korea Gas Corp. said it would divert some of its LNG shipments that it was set to receive from abroad to go to Japan. The shipments were scheduled to arrive here this month and in April.

“The decision came after the power companies in Japan asked for a ‘swap arrangement’ so that they can receive more LNG to be paid back later,” the ministry said, pointing out that the shipments to be diverted will not seriously affect fuel availability in South Korea.

Officials look at the screen showing Japan’s earthquake damage at the Foreign Ministry’s situation room in Seoul on Sunday.  (Park Hae-mook/The Korea Herald)
Officials look at the screen showing Japan’s earthquake damage at the Foreign Ministry’s situation room in Seoul on Sunday.  (Park Hae-mook/The Korea Herald)

The Seoul government this weekend began rescue efforts to help Japan recover from the 9.0-magnitude earthquake, the strongest in the country’s recorded history, and the ensuing tsunami, while striving to verify the safety of Koreans living in the devastated region.

Seoul sent a team of 102 rescue workers aboard three Air Force C-130 planes to Japan late Sunday after Japan accepted its offer to dispatch the rescue workers.

On Saturday, it sent a special team of five rescuers, two search dogs and relief equipment to Japan. The team has joined the efforts to rescue wounded people and search for those still missing after the disaster.

President Lee Myung-bak offered words of solace to Japanese Prime Minister Naoto Kan over the telephone during his visit to the United Arab Emirates on Sunday.

“We are seeing Japan rapidly dealing with the disaster under the premier’s leadership. It is touching to see Japanese people calmly responding to the disaster of a tremendous scale,” Lee was quoted as telling Kan by Hong Sang-pyo, his senior secretary for public affairs.

“I am conveying words of solace and encouragement to the Japanese government on behalf of South Koreans.”

Kan expressed gratitude to Lee for sending the rescue workers to Japan while reassuring Lee that Japan is trying its utmost to minimize the possible adverse impact from damaged nuclear facilities.

First Vice Foreign Minister Park Seok-hwan also called in Masatoshi Muto, Japan’s ambassador to South Korea, Saturday and stressed that Seoul would offer full support to assist in the ongoing recovery and rescue efforts.

Separately, the Foreign Ministry has sent its emergency team to Sendai, a Japanese city close to the epicenter of the quake, to examine how Koreans have been affected.

More than 60 Koreans living in the coastal area as well as two residents within a radius of 30 kilometers of a badly damaged nuclear plant in Fukushima Prefecture have yet to be contacted, the ministry said. There are 11,572 South Koreans living in the earthquake-hit region.

Officials said the rescue team is having difficulties verifying whether there are any South Korean casualties as it is difficult to contact them due to telecommunications problems and power outages.

“As there were reports that 200-300 dead bodies were found in the coastal Sendai region, we are trying to verify whether South Korean residents or travelers are among them,” Second Vice Foreign Minister Min Dong-seok told reporters in a press briefing.

The leaders of the ruling and opposition parties sent letters to Japan, expressing their sympathy and pledging to help Japan quickly deal with the aftermath of the earthquake that is thought to have killed thousands of people.

In a letter addressed to Japanese Prime Minister Naoto Kan, Rep. Ahn Sang-soo of the ruling Grand National Party said, “The ruling GNP pledges we will offer all possible assistance to Japan should it make any request for help.”

In a letter sent to the Japanese embassy in Seoul, Sohn Hak-kyu of the main opposition Democratic Party said, “We believe Japan, which has endured a raft of ordeals in the past, can stand back up again. Let’s not give in to fears.”

South Korea’s Red Cross has sent an official to join the international team designed to survey the extent of the damage in Japan and discuss effective measures to help Japan’s recovery efforts.

The eight-member team -- organized by the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies -- includes officials from the U.S., Australia, China, Turkey and Norway.

“This earthquake is a catastrophe comparable with the 2004 tsunami in the Indian Ocean. As the scope of the earthquake is extensive and there are a variety of dangers lingering, we need a comprehensive examination of the region and cooperation,” Cho Eun-hee, a Red Cross official in Seoul, told reporters.

The Seoul municipal government is also preparing to provide personnel and financial assistance to Japan. It has some of its rescue staff including medical officials on standby while trying to discuss with Japan what it needs in its rescue and recovery efforts.

Mayor Oh Se-hoon presided over a meeting of the municipal government officials the previous day to come up with measures to help Japan. He has also conveyed a letter of condolence to Tokyo governor Shintaro Ishihara.

By Song Sang-ho (sshluck@heraldcorp.com)
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