Artillery fire from North Korea

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Residents of South Korea's Yeonpyeong Island take cover inside a bunker after authorities sounded an alarm (AP)

The sound of new artillery fire from North Korea just hours after the US and South Korea launched a round of war games in Korean waters has sent residents and journalists on a front-line island scrambling for cover.

None of the rounds landed on Yeonpyeong Island, military officials said, but the incident showed how tense and uncertain the situation remained along the Koreas’ disputed maritime border five days after a North Korean artillery attack decimated parts of the island and killed four South Koreans.

As the rhetoric from North Korea escalated, with new warnings of a “merciless” assault if further provoked, a top Chinese official made a last-minute visit to Seoul to confer with South Korean president Lee Myung-bak.

Mr Lee and state councillor Dai Bingguo, a senior foreign policy adviser, discussed the North Korean attack and how to ease the tensions, according to Mr Lee’s office. Mr Dai also met South Korean foreign minister Kim Sung-hwan, the foreign ministry said.

Meanwhile, the chairman of North Korea’s Supreme People’s Assembly, Choe Thae Bok, was due to visit Beijing ong Tuesday, China’s official Xinhua News Agency said. Washington and Seoul have urged China, North Korea’s main ally and biggest benefactor, to step in to defuse the situation amid fears of all-out war.

The Korean peninsula remains in a technical state of war because the 1950-53 war ended in a truce, but not a peace treaty. Their border is one of the world’s most heavily fortified, guarded by troops on both sides.

However, North Korea disputes the maritime border drawn by United Nations forces at the close of the war and considers the waters around Yeonpyeong Island – 50 miles from the South Korean port of Incheon but just seven miles from the North Korean mainland – its territory.

The Koreas have fought three bloody naval skirmishes in the waters since 1999, as recently as a year ago. And eight months ago, a South Korean warship, which had been involved in one of those skirmishes, went down in an explosion, killing 46 sailors.

An international team of investigators concluded that a North Korean torpedo sank the ship. The two Koreas have remained locked in a stand-off over that incident, with South Korea demanding a show of regret for the attack and North Korea denying any involvement.

This week’s attack – on an island with a civilian population of 1,300 – marked a new level of hostility along the rivals’ disputed sea border. Two marines and two civilians were killed when the North rained artillery on Yeonpyeong in one of the worst assaults on South Korean territory since the Korean War.

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