South Korea’s troops are on high alert as the government exchanged threats with rival North Korea following the military skirmish that took tensions on the peninsula to new extremes.
US president Barack Obama reaffirmed Washington’s pledges to protect its ally after the North shelled a South Korean island near their disputed border, killing at least two marines and wounding civilians.
United Nations secretary general Ban Ki-moon called the attack one of the “gravest incidents” since the end of the Korean War.
In a conversation with South Korean president Lee Myung-bak, Mr Obama said the US stood “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 it would strengthen military forces in the disputed western waters near the island of Yeonpyeong and halt aid to the communist North. The North, in turn, warned of more military strikes if the South encroached on the maritime border by “even 0.001 millimetre”.
Exhausted evacuees from the island attacked by North Korean artillery streamed off ships in the port city of Incheon later, telling harrowing tales of the hour of destruction.
“I heard the sound of artillery, and I felt that something was flying over my head,” said Lim Jung-eun, a 36-year-old housewife who escaped Yeonpyeong island with her three children. “Then the mountain caught on fire.”
The South Korean coastguard said more than 500 people arrived on the first ships from the island. They were greeted with hugs and tears by family members at the port. Some, mostly the elderly, were taken to a line of ambulances waiting nearby.
The clash began 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.