Defiant North Korea fires artillery warning shots

By Lee Jin-man

Associated Press

Published: Friday, Nov. 26 2010 10:35 a.m. MST

YEONPYEONG ISLAND, South Korea — A defiant flash of North Korean artillery within sight of the island that it attacked this week sent a warning signal to Seoul and Washington: The North is not backing down.

The apparent military drill Friday came as the top U.S. commander in South Korea toured Yeonpyeong island to survey the wreckage from the rain of artillery three days earlier. As a U.S. nuclear-powered aircraft carrier headed toward the Yellow Sea for exercises next week with South Korea, the North warned that the joint maneuvers will push the Korean peninsula to the "brink of war."

South Korea's government, meanwhile, struggled to recoup from the surprise attacks that killed four people, including two civilians, and forced its beleaguered defense minister to resign Thursday. President Lee Myung-bak on Friday named a former chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff to the post.

Tensions have soared between the Koreas since the North's strike Tuesday destroyed large parts of Yeonpyeong in a major escalation of their sporadic skirmishes along the disputed sea border.

The attack — eight months after a torpedo sank a South Korean warship, killing 46 sailors — has laid bare Seoul's weaknesses in defense 60 years after the Korean War. Lee has ordered reinforcements for the 4,000 troops on Yeonpyeong and four other Yellow Sea islands, as well as top-level weaponry and upgraded rules of engagement.

The heightened animosity between the Koreas comes as the North undergoes a delicate transition of power from leader Kim Jong Il to his young, inexperienced son Kim Jong Un, who is in his late 20s and is expected to eventually succeed his ailing father.

Washington and Seoul have pressed China to use its influence on Pyongyang to ease tensions amid worries of all-out war. A dispatch Friday from Chinese state media saying Beijing's foreign minister had met the North Korean ambassador appeared to be an effort to trumpet China's role as a responsible actor and placate the U.S. and the South.

The North sees the U.S.-South Korean drills scheduled to start Sunday as a major military provocation. Pyongyang unleashed its anger over the planned exercises in a dispatch earlier Friday.

"The situation on the Korean peninsula is inching closer to the brink of war," the report in the North's official Korean Central News Agency said.

A North Korean official boasted that Pyongyang's military "precisely aimed and hit the enemy artillery base" as punishment for South Korean military drills — a reference to Tuesday's attack — and warned of another "shower of dreadful fire," KCNA reported.

China expressed worry over any war games in waters within its exclusive economic zone, though the statement on the Foreign Ministry website didn't mention the drills starting Sunday. That zone extends 230 miles (370 kilometers) from China's coast and includes areas south of Yeonpyeong cited for possible maneuvers, although the exact location of the drills is not known.

North Korea does not recognize the maritime border drawn by the U.N. in 1953, and considers the waters around Yeonpyeong Island its territory.

Yeonpyeong Island, home to South Korean military bases as well as a civilian population of about 1,300 people, lies only seven miles (11 kilometers) from North Korean shores.

The U.S. commander in South Korea, Gen. Walter Sharp, said during a visit to the island that Tuesday's attack was a clear violation of the armistice signed at the end of the three-year Korean War.

"We at United Nations Command will investigate this completely and call on North Korea to stop any future attacks," he said.

Washington keeps more than 28,000 troops in South Korea to protect its ally — a sore point for North Korea, which cites the U.S. presence as the main reason behind its drive to build nuclear weapons.

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