SEONGNAM, South Korea — South Korean dignitaries placed white chrysanthemums on a funeral altar Saturday for two marines killed in a North Korean bombardment, as the country prepared military maneuvers with the U.S. that have enraged the North and concerned China.
The South Korean marines commander vowed "thousand-fold" retaliation following Tuesday's attack on a South Korean island, which also killed two civilians in one of the worst artillery attacks on the country's territory since the 1950-53 Korean War.
North Korea issued new warnings Saturday against the war games scheduled to start Sunday with a U.S. nuclear-powered aircraft carrier in the Yellow Sea, calling them an "unpardonable provocation" and warning of retaliatory attacks creating a "sea of fire" if its own territory is violated.
The comments ran on North Korea's state-run Uriminzokkiri website a day after the North's warnings that the peninsula was on the "brink of war."
China, under pressure from the U.S. and South Korea to rein in its ally Pyongyang, urged both sides to show restraint while Washington played down the belligerent rhetoric, noting that the weekend war games were routine and planned well before last week's attack.
"The pressing task now is to put the situation under control and prevent a recurrence of similar incidents," Chinese Foreign Minister Yang Jiechi told U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton by phone Friday, according to the ministry's website.
The North's artillery fire Tuesday destroyed civilian homes as well as military bases on Yeonpyeong Island 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 — laid bare Seoul's weaknesses in defense 60 years after the Korean War.
North Korea does not recognize the maritime border drawn by the U.N. at the close of the three-year war in 1953, and considers the waters around Yeonpyeong Island, just 7 miles (11 kilometers) from its shores, as its territory.
The heightened animosity between the Koreas comes as the nuclear-armed 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.
China's foreign minister met with the North Korean ambassador to Beijing, Chinese state media said — an apparent effort to trumpet China's role as a responsible actor, and placate the U.S. and the South. China has expressed mild concern about the impending war games, in contrast to its strong protests over earlier rounds.
"The Chinese government is trying to send Pyongyang a signal that if they continue to be so provocative, China will just leave the North Koreans to themselves," said Zhu Feng, director of Peking University's Center for International and Strategic Studies.
China is impoverished North Korea's biggest benefactor and one of its only allies.
In Washington, the Pentagon played down any notion that the weekend maneuvers with South Korea — set to include the USS George Washington supercarrier — were a provocation.
"We have exercised there regularly," Capt. Darryn James, a Defense Department spokesman in Washington, said Friday. "And all of these exercises are in international waters."
South Korea's government, meanwhile, struggled to recoup from the surprise attacks, firing one defense minister and naming a new one Friday.
President Lee Myung-bak also 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.
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