Published: Nov 23, 2010 10:01 Updated: Nov 23, 2010 15:44
SEOUL, South Korea: North Korea shot dozens of rounds of artillery onto a populated South Korean island near the countries’ disputed western border Tuesday, and South Korean troops returned fire, military officials said.
With its military placed in its highest non-wartime alert after the island attack, South Korea says it has scrambled F16 jets and warned of stronger response if the North continues with provocations.
The skirmish came amid tension over North Korea’s claim that it has a new uranium enrichment facility and just over a month after North Korean leader Kim Jong Il unveiled his youngest son Kim Jong Un as his heir apparent South Korea’s YTN television said two people were injured, several houses were on fire and shells were still falling on Yeonpyeong island. The station broadcast pictures of thick columns of black smoke rising from the island.
Yonhap news agency, quoting a military official, said four soldiers were wounded. President Lee Myung-bak ordered officials to make sure that the firing wouldn’t escalate, according to Yonhap, quoting a presidential official. YTN said between 1,200 and 1,300 people live on the island, citing an island resident.
A South Korean Joint Chiefs of Staff official said dozens of rounds of artillery landed on the island and in the sea.
The official says South Korea fired back. The official, who spoke on condition of anonymity because of JCS rules, said South Korea’s military is on alert. He had no other details, and could not confirm the reports of casualties.
South Korea’s defense ministry said North Korea’s action was a clear violation of an armistice between the two countries, and said Pyongyang had planned the shelling intentionally.
“This is an intentional and planned attack… and it is clearly in violation of the armistice,” Lee Hong-ki, South Korea’s defense ministry official, told reporters.
Relations between the two Koreas also remain tense after the sinking in March of a South Korean warship in which 46 sailors died. Seoul has blamed a North Korean torpedo, while Pyongyang has denied any responsibility.
The countries’ western maritime boundary has long been a flash point between the two Koreas. The North does not recognize the border that was unilaterally drawn by the United Nations at the close of the 1950-53 Korean War.
North and South Korea have fought three bloody skirmishes near the maritime border in recent years, most recently in November 2009.
China urges peace
In Beijing, the Chinese Foreign Ministry expressed concern about reports of the latest escalation of tensions between its Korean neighbors.
A spokesman for the ministry, Hong Lei, also told a news conference that both sides of the Korean peninsula should “do more to contribute to peace,” and said it was imperative to return to six-party talks aimed at ending North Korea’s nuclear weapons program.
China is North Korea’s only major ally, and its economic and diplomatic support have been important to shoring up its otherwise isolated neighbor, whose leader Kim Jong-il visited China twice this year to strengthen ties.
But those ties have become a sore-point with Washington after revelations that North Korea appears to have made big steps toward enriching uranium. A US envoy on the issue, Stephen Bosworth, arrived in Beijing on Tuesday.
South Korean President Lee Myung-bak said he was trying to prevent the exchange of artillery fire between North and South Korea from escalating into a greater conflict, Yonhap news reported.
Russia, US react
Russia and the United States condemned the attack and called for mutual restraint.
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 his name was not published.
“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.”
In Washington, the White House urged North Korea to “halt its belligerent action.”
“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 United States is firmly committed to the defense of our ally, the Republic of Korea, and to the maintenance of regional peace and stability,” it said.
White House spokesman, Press Secretary Robert Gibbs, said the US is in “close and continuing contact” with the South Korean government.
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