WASHINGTON — The United States denounced North Korea Tuesday for what it called an outrageous attack on its close ally South Korea but sought a diplomatic rather than military response to one of the most serious military clashes between the Koreas in decades.
President Barack Obama met into the evening with his top national security advisers to discuss next steps. He was expected to telephone South Korea's president late Tuesday night.
Earlier, Defense Secretary Robert Gates phoned South Korea's defense minister to express sympathy for the deaths of two of the South's marines in the artillery shelling of a small South Korean island and to express appreciation "for the restraint shown to date" by the South's government, a Pentagon spokesman said.
Working to head off any escalation, the U.S. did not reposition any of its 29,000 troops in the South or make other military moves after North Korea fired salvos of shells into the island, setting off an artillery duel between the two sides.
"North Korea has a pattern of doing things that are provocative," White House spokesman Bill Burton said. "This is a particularly outrageous act, and we're going to be doing everything that we need to do in order to make sure that we're defending our ally in South Korea and that there's security and stability in the region."
In his phone call to South Korea's defense minister, Gates said the U.S. viewed recent attacks as a violation of the armistice agreement that ended the Korea War more than a century ago, and he reiterated the U.S. commitment to South Korea's defense, said Pentagon Press Secretary Geoff Morrell.
Obama was awakened at 4 a.m. Tuesday with the news. He went ahead with an Indiana trip focused on the economy before returning to the White House after dark. He planned to telephone South Korea President Lee Myung-bak.
State Department spokesman Mark Toner said the U.S. would take a "deliberate approach" in response to what he called provocative North Korean behavior. At the same time, other administration officials, speaking on condition of anonymity to describe the emerging strategy, said the White House was determined to end a diplomatic cycle that officials said rewards North Korean brinksmanship.
In the past, the U.S. and other nations have sweetened offers to North Korea as it has developed new missiles and prototype nuclear weapons. North Korea is now demanding new one-on-one talks with the United States, which rejects that model in favor of group diplomacy that includes North Korea's protector, China.
"We're not going to respond willy-nilly," Toner said. "We believe that it's important that we keep a unified and measured approach going forward."
Both Republicans and Democrats on Capitol Hill accused North Korea of starting the skirmish.
The violence comes as the North prepares for a dynastic change in leadership and faces a winter of food and electricity shortages. It is the latest of a series of confrontations that have aggravated tensions on the divided peninsula.
The incident also follows the North's decision last week to give visiting Western scientists a tour of a secret uranium enrichment facility, which may signal an expansion of the North's nuclear weapons program. Six weeks ago, North Korean leader Kim Jong Il anointed his youngest son, Kim Jong Un, as his heir apparent.
Washington has relatively few options when dealing with Pyongyang. Military action is particularly unappealing, since the unpredictable North possesses crude nuclear weapons as well as a huge standing army. North Korea exists largely outside the system of international financial and diplomatic institutions that the U.S. has used as leverage in dealing with other hostile countries, including Iran.
North Korea has also resisted pressure from its major ally, Beijing, which appears to be nervous about the signs of instability in its neighbor.
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