North Korea has warned that US-South Korean plans for military drills put the peninsula on the brink of war, and appeared to launch its own artillery practice within earshot of an island it showered with a deadly barrage this week.
The fresh artillery blasts came just after the top US commander in South Korea, General Walter Sharp, toured the country’s Yeonpyeong Island in a show of solidarity with Seoul and to survey damage from Tuesday’s hail of North Korean artillery fire that killed four people.
An official at the South Korean Joint Chiefs of Staff said about 20 blasts were heard on Yeonpyeong coming from North Korea’s mainland some seven miles to the north, and that nothing landed on South Korean territory.
Tensions have soared between the Koreas since the North’s strike on Tuesday destroyed large parts of the island, killing two civilians as well as two marines in a major escalation of their sporadic skirmishes along the sea border.
The heightened animosity between the Koreas is taking place as the North undergoes a delicate transition of power from leader Kim Jong Il to his young, inexperienced son Kim Jong Un, who is in his late 20s and is expected to eventually succeed his ailing father.
As Washington and Seoul pressed China to use its influence on Pyongyang to ease tensions amid concerns of all-out war, the US prepared to send a nuclear-powered aircraft carrier to South Korean waters for joint military drills starting on Sunday. The North, which sees the drills as a major military provocation, unleashed its anger over the planned exercises in a dispatch earlier on Friday.
“The situation on the Korean peninsula is inching closer to the brink of war,” the report in the North’s official Korean Central News Agency said.
The regime does not recognise the maritime border drawn by the UN in 1953, and considers the waters around Yeonpyeong Island its territory. General Sharp called Tuesday’s attack on Yeonpyeong a clear violation of an armistice signed in 1953 at the end of the three-year Korean War.
Washington keeps more than 28,000 troops in South Korea to protect the ally from aggression – a legacy of the Korean War that is a sore point for North Korea, which cites the US presence as the main reason behind its need for nuclear weapons.
On Thursday, South Korea President Lee Myung-bak ordered reinforcements for the 4,000 troops on Yeonpyeong and four other Yellow Sea islands, as well as top-level weaponry and upgraded rules of engagement. He also sacked Defence Minister Kim Tae-young amid intense criticism over lapses in the country’s response to the attack.