This overview photo shows destroyed houses on Yeonpyeong island in the disputed waters of the Yellow Sea after North Korea fired dozens of artillery shells. AFP photo
The United States and South Korea Wednesday announced joint naval war games as the death toll from North Korea’s shelling of a border island – one of its worst attacks in decades – rose to four.
Coastguards searching the ruins of shattered homes on the South Korean island of Yeonpyeong found the bodies of two elderly men, a day after the North’s artillery barrage killed two marines and injured 18 other people.
In their first joint response to the attack – described by Seoul media as an unprecedented shelling of the South since the 1950-53 Korean War – presidents Barack Obama and Lee Myung-Bak agreed on the military exercises.
|Main points about North Korea|
|GEOGRAPHY: Lies in the northern half of the Korean peninsula, bordering South Korea, China and Russia.
AREA: 122,762 square kilometers.
POPULATION: 24 million.
RELIGION: Buddhism, Christianity.
HISTORY: The Korean peninsula was colonized by Japan from 1910-1945 but partitioned after World War II into U.S. and Soviet spheres of influence. Kim Il-Sung founded North Korea in 1948.
He invaded South Korea in 1950, sparking a three-year war in which a U.S.-led United Nations force backed the South and China fought for the North. It ended in an armistice, leaving the two Koreas still technically at war.
Kim Il-Sung’s pursuit of nuclear weapons fuelled tensions with the United States, which came close to attacking the North in 1994. Kim Il-Sung died in 1994 to be succeeded by his son Kim Jong-Il, who continued work on nuclear and missile development. Amid strains in a 2005 six-nation nuclear disarmament deal, the North in 2006 staged its first atomic weapons test. It quit the six-party forum in April 2009. A second nuclear test in May 2009, along with missile launches, brought tougher United Nations sanctions.
POLITICAL INSTITUTIONS: Highly centralized isolated state. The most powerful body is the National Defense Commission overseeing the military and chaired by Kim Jong-Il. Kim is also general secretary of the ruling Workers’ Party of Korea. A rubber-stamp parliament ratifies the party’s decisions.
Kim Jong-Un, the youngest son of Kim Jong-Il, was elevated to key party positions earlier this year in a move that appeared to signal he would eventually succeed his ailing father.
ECONOMY: Agriculture, mining and manufacturing in a state-directed economy. Famine killed hundreds of thousands in the mid-1990s and the country still suffers persistent serious food shortages, but political tensions have reduced external food aid. The country remains under various U.S. and U.N. sanctions.
MILITARY: Armed forces of around 1.2 million. Most estimates say it has enough plutonium to build six or seven atomic weapons. It is unclear whether the North can make nuclear warheads for its missiles.
Pressure rose on Beijing to rein in its wayward ally Pyongyang, which again asserted that Seoul had provoked the clash. South Korea, after decrying an “inhumane atrocity” against defenseless civilians, said it was suspending promised flood aid to North Korea. It has already called off talks on reuniting families split by the Korean War.
The bombardment of Yeonpyeong, which lies near the disputed inter-Korean Yellow Sea border, sent panicked civilians fleeing and fuelled anxiety about North Korea’s intentions – days after a new nuclear program came to light.
Japan’s Prime Minister Naoto Kan called on China to use its “significant influence over North Korea” to reduce tensions. A White House statement said Obama telephoned Lee to declare that the United States “stands shoulder to shoulder” with South Korea, which is home to 28,500 U.S. troops.
The four-day joint exercise will start Sunday in the Yellow Sea, and involve a naval strike group spearheaded by the nuclear-powered aircraft carrier USS George Washington, U.S. Forces Korea said.
It said the drill was planned well before the “unprovoked artillery attack” but it demonstrated the U.S. “commitment to regional stability through deterrence.” Outraged Seoul newspapers urged the government to hit back. “A club is the only medicine for a mad dog,” Dong-A Ilbo said, calling the shelling a “war crime” that demanded a military riposte.
South Korea said it would deploy more artillery on Yeonpyeong after officials announced that the North had fired up to 170 artillery shells, of which 80 hit the island, burning down 19 homes. Local officials who visited the island released graphic photos of scorched and ruined buildings, with debris littering the streets.
At least 700 people have fled Yeonpyeong, which is home to more than 1,500 civilians and a permanent military base. The attack “targeted our land and attacked civilians,” President Lee was quoted by his spokesman as saying. “The number of victims may be small but the meaning is far bigger.”
He ordered reinforcements for five frontline islands and told the military to study possible changes to rules of engagement, allowing it to respond more actively to provocations. China – North Korea’s main ally and economic prop – has expressed concern but not publicly criticized the North. Its media have given generally sympathetic coverage to Pyongyang’s version of events.
The North criticized the South for scrapping the planned talks on family reunions. It repeated claims that Seoul provoked the artillery attack by firing into the North’s territory. The firing came after North Korea’s disclosure of an apparently operational uranium enrichment plant – a potential way of building a nuclear bomb. It also comes as North Korea prepares for an eventual succession from Kim Jong-Il to his youngest son Jong-Un.
“We judged that after revealing the new uranium enrichment facility on November 12, North Korea made the artillery attack to give Kim Jong-Un the status of a strong leader,” the South’s Defense Minister Kim Tae-Young told parliament.
China is under mounting pressure to intervene, despite its reluctance to do anything to destabilize the regime in Pyongyang. “We should ask China, which has significant influence over North Korea, to make efforts to jointly restrain North Korean actions,” Kan said at a Japanese cabinet task force meeting set up in response to the attack.
Australia called the “outrageously provocative” shelling a threat to the entire region’s stability and Foreign Minister Kevin Rudd said: “I believe it’s important now for China to bring all of its influence to bear on North Korea.”
Tensions have been high since the deadly sinking of a South Korean warship in March, which Seoul blamed on a North Korean torpedo attack. Pyongyang rejects the charge.