DPRK accuses ROK of firing first; 2 marines killed
INCHEON, Republic of Korea - The Democratic People's Republic of Korea (DPRK) on Tuesday exchanged artillery fire with the Republic of Korea (ROK), after the DPRK shelled an island near their disputed sea border, killing at least two ROK marines, setting dozens of buildings ablaze and sending civilians fleeing for shelter.
The DPRK accused the ROK of firing first in one of the most serious clashes since the Korean War ended in 1953.
"Despite our repeated warnings, South Korea fired dozens of shells from 1 pm ... and we've taken strong military action immediately," its official Korean Central News Agency (KCNA) said in a brief statement.
The supreme military command in Pyongyang threatened more strikes if the ROK crossed their maritime border by "even 0.001 millimeter", according to the KCNA.
The ROK returned fire, and scrambled fighter jets to the area. The military said it was conducting regular military drills off the west coast before the DPRK started firing dozens of shells. But Seoul said its firing exercises were not aimed at the DPRK. It is not clear whether there had been any military drills near the island that could have triggered the incident.
"We were conducting usual military drills and our test shots were aimed toward the west, not the north," an ROK military official said.
ROK President Lee Myung-bak, who has pursued a hard line with the DPRK since taking office nearly three years ago, said a response had to be firm following the attack on Yeonpyeong island, 120 km west of Seoul.
The United Nations Security Council could hold an emergency meeting in the next day or two over the increasing tension, a French diplomatic source told reporters on Tuesday.
The exchange was a sharp escalation of skirmishes that flare up periodically along the disputed border, and it comes amid renewed tension over the DPRK's claim that it has a new uranium enrichment facility.
The two Koreas are still technically at war - the Korean War (1950-1953) ended only with a truce. Tensions rose sharply in March after Seoul accused Pyongyang of torpedoing one of its navy vessels, killing 46 sailors, an accusation that was strongly denied by Pyongyang.
Columns of thick black smoke could be seen rising from homes on the island in footage aired by Yonhap Television News (YTN) in the ROK. Screams and shouts filled the air as shells rained down on the island for about an hour.
"I thought I would die," Lee Chun-ok, 54, told The Associated Press after being evacuated to the port city of Incheon, west of Seoul. "I was really, really terrified, and I'm still terrified."
She said she was watching TV when the shelling began, and a wall and door in her home suddenly collapsed.
"Houses and mountains are on fire and people are evacuating. You can't see very well because of plumes of smoke," a witness on the island told YTN before the shelling ended.
YTN said at least 200 shells hit Yeonpyeong. Most landed on a military base there.
The ROK military said two marines were killed in the attack, 17 were wounded and three civilians were also hurt.
Piao Jianyi, director of the Center of Korean Peninsula Studies at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, said it is too early to say which side is to blame for starting the skirmish, as the ROK was conducting a military drill near the island.
Soldiers from a Republic of Korea army armoured division take part in an annual river-crossing exercise against a possible attack from the Democratic People's Republic of Korea (DPRK), on the Han river in Yeoju, about 100 km (62 miles) southeast of Seoul, Nov 23, 2010. [Photo/Agencies]
He noted that based on news reports, both sides were restrained and neither sought to launch a war.
"It is no surprise that the DPRK reacted as it has long been under pressure from ROK-US joint military drills," he said.
Piao suggested that the best solution is for all sides to return to the negotiating table at the Six-Party Talks.
Huang Youfu, director of the Institute of Korean Studies at Minzu University of China, also blamed the United States and the ROK for the escalation of tensions.
"The frequent joint military drills by the US and ROK have made the DPRK feel under grave security challenges. Pyongyang may want to demonstrate its self-defense capacity (by fighting back)," said Huang, adding the incident will make China's efforts at resuming the Six-Party Talks more difficult.
Gary Li, an expert on East Asia security at the London-based International Institute for Strategic Studies, called the DPRK shelling a military "provocation".
"Washington just ruled out the resumption of Six-Party Talks following this incident, so it is unlikely to be restarted anytime soon."
Scott A. Snyder, adjunct senior fellow for Korea Studies at the US-based Council on Foreign Relations, said the DPRK's "renewed nuclear development efforts" are likely to push Pyongyang higher on the Sino-US agenda.
Revelations regarding the DPRK's enriched uranium program "pose a direct challenge" to the Obama administration's policy on a number of fronts, he added.
China Daily - Agencies
China calls for peace as tensions escalate
BEIJING - China expressed concern over reports that the Democratic People's Republic of Korea (DPRK) had shelled a Republic of Korean (ROK) island on Tuesday in the latest escalation of tensions on the Korean Peninsula.
Foreign Ministry spokesman Hong Lei told a news conference both sides on the peninsula should "do more to contribute to peace", and said it was imperative to return to Six-Party Talks aimed at making the peninsula nuclear free.
"We have heard reports and express our concern. The situation still needs to be confirmed," said Hong, responding to a question about the artillery attack. "China hopes that the relevant parties will do more to contribute to peace and stability in the region."
In Washington, the White House on Tuesday condemned the artillery attack and demanded the action cease.
"The United States strongly condemns this attack and calls on North Korea to halt its belligerent action," the White House said in a statement.
The attack comes just as a US envoy is traveling to the region after revelations that the DPRK is moving ahead with uranium enrichment, a possible second way to manufacture material for atomic weapons (in addition to its plutonium-based program).
"The US is firmly committed to the defense of our ally, the Republic of Korea, and to the maintenance of regional peace and stability," the White House said, adding that it was in close and continuing contact with Seoul over the situation.
In Moscow, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov called the escalation in tensions a "colossal danger".
A senior Russian Foreign Ministry official said on Tuesday that the attack was unacceptable and called on both sides to show restraint to prevent a wider conflict.
"We think the use of force on the Korean Peninsula, and in international relations in general, is a path that is absolutely unacceptable," the official told reporters on condition of anonymity.
"We think any dispute between North and South Korea must be decided exclusively by diplomatic means," the official said.
"Now it is important that the situation does not cross over into a military conflict."
Japan's top government spokesman said that the DPRK's action was "unforgiveable". Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshito Sengoku told a news conference in Tokyo that Japan "strongly condemns" the strike.
China Daily - Agencies