The US and South Korea prepared for military manoeuvres on Sunday as South Koreans demanded vengeance over a deadly North Korean artillery bombardment that has raised fears of more clashes between the nations.
The North, meanwhile, attempted to justify one of the worst attacks on South Korean territory since the 1950-53 Korean War, claiming civilians were being used as a “human shield” around artillery positions and lashing out at what it called a “propaganda campaign” against Pyongyang.
Four South Koreans, including two civilians, died after the North rained artillery on the small Yellow Sea island of Yeonpyeong, which is home to both fishing communities and military bases.
North Korea claimed the US orchestrated last Tuesday’s clash so that it could stage joint naval exercises in the Yellow Sea with the South that include a US nuclear powered supercarrier – enraging the North and making neighbouring China uneasy.
China sent a senior official, Dai Bingguo, to Seoul for talks with Foreign Minister Kim Sung-hwan, South Korea’s Yonhap news agency reported. Dai, accompanied by chief Chinese nuclear negotiator Wu Dawei, discussed Tuesday’s attack and international talks on ending North Korea’s nuclear programmes, it said.
The North Korean attack on an area with a civilian population marked a new level of hostility along the rivals’ disputed sea border.
At a funeral near Seoul on Saturday, South Korea’s marine commander, Major General You Nak-jun, vowed a “thousand-fold” retaliation for the attack. Dignitaries and relatives laid white flowers at an altar for the two marines killed in the North’s attack.
The aggression could be linked to the North’s attempt to strengthen its government as it pursues a delicate transfer of power from leader Kim Jong Il to a young, unproven son. It also may reflect Pyongyang’s frustration that it has been unable to force a resumption of stalled international talks on receiving aid in return for nuclear disarmament.
The skirmish prompted President Lee Myung-bak to replace his defence minister on Friday.
The North said Sunday’s planned war games, which involve the USS George Washington supercarrier, showed that the US was “the arch criminal who deliberately planned the incident and wire-pulled it behind the scene”.