2 civilians killed in North Korean artillery attack

North Korea fired artillery barrages onto a South Korean island near their disputed border Nov. 23, setting buildings alight and prompting South Korea to return fire and scramble fighter jets. One South Korean marine was killed.
By Seo Yoonjung and Keith B. Richburg
Washington Post Foreign Service
Wednesday, November 24, 2010; 6:44 AM

SEOUL - The massive artillery barrage launched by North Korea on Tuesday killed two South Korean civilians in addition to two Marines, South Korea said Wednesday.

The shelling sent the approximately 1,700 residents of Yeonpyeong island fleeing to the safety of bunkers and thrust South Korea into a state of emergency, with fighter jets on high alert and the Seoul government threatening "stern retaliation."

President Lee Myung-bak convened an emergency meeting of security ministers. Television footage showed plumes of smoke rising from the island, which lies near the disputed maritime border separating North and South Korea.

Officials said the North had fired an estimated 200 artillery shells onto Yeonpyeong, which lies in the Yellow Sea about 72 miles west of Seoul and seven miles off the North Korean mainland. Most of the shells landed on a military base, killing the two South Korean marines, wounding at least 19 other people and setting more than 60 buildings ablaze.

Hours later, rescuers found the burned bodies of the two civilians who also had been killed in the attack.

The South Korean government called the North's action a "clear military provocation," with Defense Minister Kim Tae-young telling the country's parliament on Wednesday, "We view it as a carefully planned action and aimed at strengthening their controls over the people in relation to the succession process."

The South returned fire with about 80 shells from its own howitzers.

President Obama "strongly condemned" the North Korean attack in a phone call to Lee Tuesday night, the White House said. Obama told Lee that "the United States stands shoulder to shoulder with our close friend and ally," and the two leaders pledged to hold joint military and training exercises in coming days.

The latest conflict comes at a particularly tense time on the Korean Peninsula, just days after the reclusive government in Pyongyang revealed to a visiting American scientist the existence of a new uranium-enrichment facility, and just weeks after North Korean leader Kim Jong Il began laying the groundwork for his youngest son to succeed him.

The clash brought the two sides - which technically have remained in a state of war since the Korean armistice in 1953 - close to the brink of a major conflagration. It also effectively undid tentative steps they had recently taken to renew ties, such as bringing together families who have lived on opposite sides of the border since the Korean War.

"With this much tension going on, now I can't imagine the two Koreas being reunited," said Kim Dae-jong, 77, who recently met his younger sister at a Red Cross-organized reunion for the first time since he was 13. "Both my sister and I are near the end of our lives, so we will not see each other again."

Kang Da-jae, 26, said he was outraged by North Korea's conduct. "I know South Koreans have somewhat naive perception about North Korea being the same people" as South Koreans, Kang said. "But they're our enemy, pointing guns right at us and firing to us."

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