Tensions high after Koreas trade shelling
INCHEON, South Korea – South Korea’s troops are on high alert today as their government exchanged threats with rival North Korea following a frightening military skirmish that ratcheted tensions on the peninsula to new extremes.
President Barack Obama reaffirmed Washington’s pledges to protect ally Seoul after the North shelled a South Korean island near their disputed border, killing at least two marines and wounding civilians in what U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon called one of the “gravest incidents” since the end of the Korean War.
In a conversation with South Korean President Lee Myung-bak, Obama said the United States stands “shoulder to shoulder” with Seoul. The White House said the presidents agreed to hold combined military exercises and enhanced training in the days ahead.
South Korea vowed massive retaliation should North Korea attack again, and said today it would strengthen military forces in the disputed western waters near the island of Yeonpyeong and halt aid to the communist North. The North warned of more military strikes if the South encroaches on the maritime border by “even 0.001 millimeter.”
South Korea sent two ships carrying 2,000 boxes of relief supplies to the stricken island today , Coast guard official Kim Dong-jin said. He said that about 340 residents escaping the island were to arrive at the port city of Incheon aboard a Coast Guard ship around mid-afternoon.
Images released by the local government and obtained through YTN television showed people huddled in emergency shelters, children wrapped in blankets, rows of destroyed houses with collapsed walls, blown out windows and charred roofs. A man with a shovel walked through the rubble.
The skirmish began yesterday when North Korea warned the South to halt military drills near their sea border, according to South Korean officials. When Seoul refused and began firing artillery into disputed waters — but away from the North Korean shore — the North retaliated by shelling Yeonpyeong, which houses South Korean military installations and a small civilian population.
Seoul responded by unleashing its own barrage from K-9 155mm self-propelled howitzers and scrambling fighter jets. Two South Korean marines were killed in the shelling that also injured 15 troops and three civilians. Officials in Seoul said there could be considerable North Korean casualties.
Shin Sung-hee, a fisherman, said he was mending his fishing net near a port on Yeonpyeong when he saw columns of black smoke and fire billowing from the hills.
“I couldn’t think of anything. I just thought my wife would be in danger, so I rushed to my house,” Shin said.
His wife, Lee Chun-ok, said that when she fled her partly collapsed house, she saw black smoke engulfing the town and fires erupting from nearby hills; a woman was crying on a bridge. Her husband ran over and told her they had to escape, so they ran to a port and managed to get on a ferry with several hundred other people.
The U.S. government called the North’s barrages an outrageous, unprovoked attack, but sought to avoid any escalation and did not reposition any of its 29,000 troops stationed in the South.
South Korean Defense Minister Kim Tae-young told lawmakers Wednesday that the military will send reinforcements to five islands near the disputed sea border, but provided no details. “South Korea maintains military readiness to deter North Korea’s additional provocations,” he said.
South Korea said today that, despite the artillery exchange the day before, it would continue another previously scheduled military drill set for a different part of the Yellow Sea, about 70 miles (110 kilometers) south of the disputed waters near Yeonpyeong.
The Joint Chiefs of Staff said the military drill by the South Korean army, navy, air force and marines would continue until November 30 as previously scheduled.