WASHINGTON — President Barack Obama was "outraged" Tuesday, the White House said, following North Korea's artillery attack against the South Korean island of Yeonpyeong, the latest in a series of provocations that have reawakened concerns about the threat posed by the communist country and its reclusive leadership.
North Korea fired barrages of artillery onto a South Korean island near their disputed western border Tuesday, setting buildings ablaze and killing at least two marines after warning the South to halt military drills in the area, South Korean officials said.
"It's an outrageous act," Obama spokesman Bill Burton told reporters.
In an earlier statement released before dawn, shortly after the attack, White House Press Secretary Robert Gibbs called on North Korea to "to halt its belligerent action and to fully abide by the terms of the armistice agreement," the 1953 pact that ended the Korean War.
Gibbs said the White House "is in close and continuing contact" with the South Korean government.
"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," he said.
Though the White House had strong words for North Korea, the administration was tempering Obama's direct involvement by planning a written statement from the president instead of having him speak publicly.
At least 20 members of Obama's national security team were to meet late Tuesday afternoon to discuss response to the crisis, including Defense Secretary Robert Gates, Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton, U.N. ambassador Susan Rice, Pacific Commander Adm. Robert Willard and Adm. Mike Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.
The president, who was traveling back to Washington Tuesday afternoon after delivering a speech on the economy in Indiana, was expected to be briefed on the meeting and his staff's recommendations. Obama was also expected to call South Korea's President Lee Myung-bak.
The White House said it would work with its international partners to determine the appropriate next steps.
Pentagon spokesman Col. Dave Lapan said the U.S. has not moved any additional U.S. assets to the area as a result of the shelling and declined to say whether forces there had been put on any heightened alert. He said it was "premature" to say whether the U.S. is considering any action in response to the incident or whether to increase the deterrent there.
Congressional Republicans and Democrats joined the administration in condemning the attack.
"As the people of the Republic of Korea question what new belligerent action may come from the North, they should not have any question that the people and forces of the United States stand ready as a devoted ally committed to the defense of their nation," Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., said in a statement. "I join the president in his strong condemnation of what is sadly just the latest in a long string of hostile actions. North Korea's neighbors should unite in condemning this attack."
House Armed Services Committee Chairman Ike Skelton, D-Mo., called the artillery attacks "reprehensible" and said it was "in direct violation of the Armistice Agreement."
"The North Korean regime is more dangerous than most people realize. I join the administration in strongly condemning North Korea for its artillery attack against South Korea," Skelton said in a statement.
For Obama, the incident continues a preoccupation with national security issues since the Nov. 2 election in which Republicans reclaimed the House of Representatives and also narrowed the Democratic majority in the Senate. He has been struggling to get a vote in the Senate on the New START nuclear weapons treaty with Russia and took a 10-day Asian tour and traveled to a NATO summit last week.
The White House said Obama was woken up shortly before 4 a.m. by National Security Adviser Tom Donilon, who updated the president on the situation. Obama was updated again during his daily intelligence briefing before he traveled to Indiana.
Gen. Walter Sharp, commander of U.S. forces in South Korea and the U.S.-led U.N. Command, has been talking with his South Korean counterparts and Gates was scheduled to talk to his, as well, on Tuesday morning, said Lapan, the Pentagon spokesman.
Pentagon officials said none of the more than 28,000 U.S. troops stationed in South Korea were involved in the military drills.
Lapan said U.S. troops have participated in the annual exercise in the past, but an earlier plan to have U.S. Marines participate in a landing maneuver with the South Koreans this year didn't work out because of American scheduling issues.
The attack came amid high tension over North Korea's claim that it has a new uranium enrichment facility and just six weeks after North Korean leader Kim Jong Il unveiled his youngest son Kim Jong Un as his heir apparent.
On Monday, State Department spokesman P.J. Crowley told reporters the administration is studying the evidence a group of visiting American scientists used to conclude the North was building the enrichment facility, which presumably could be used to produce fuel for nuclear weapons.
"We will not be drawn into rewarding North Korea for bad behavior," he said. "They frequently anticipate doing something outrageous or provocative and forcing us to jump through hoops as a result. We're not going to buy into this cycle."
The North's artillery on Tuesday struck the small South Korean-held island of Yeonpyeong, which houses military installations and a small civilian population and which has been the focus of two previous deadly battles between the Koreas.
South Korea returned fire and dispatched fighter jets in response, and said there could be considerable North Korean casualties as troops unleashed retaliatory fire. The supreme military command in Pyongyang threatened more strikes if the South crossed its maritime border by "even 0.001 millimeter," according to the North's official Korean Central News Agency.