By Seo Yoonjung and Keith B. Richburg
Washington Post Foreign Service
Wednesday, November 24, 2010; 6:44 AM
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."
Gwak Keun-mo, 25, was angry as well. "I used to feel sympathy toward suffering North Koreans, and I know the regime and its people should be considered separately," Gwak said. "But now I don't like the idea of providing aid to North Korea anymore."
In Beijing, the chief U.S. negotiator for the peninsula, Stephen W. Bosworth, told reporters that both China and the United States view the conflict as "very undesirable" and agreed that restraint should be "exercised on all sides."
China, in a statement by its Foreign Ministry spokesman, urged a return to the suspended six-party talks on North Korea's nuclear activities - involving South Korea, Japan, the United States, Russia and China - to help defuse tensions.
China is hermetic North Korea's main ally and trading partner, contributing food aid as well as economic assistance and investment. The two fought together against American and South Korean troops in the Korean War. China is concerned, among other things, about a possible breakdown of the North Korean regime, which might lead to a flood of refugees across the border into China.
Tuesday's attack came just as tens of thousands of South Korean troops were beginning an annual military drill called Safeguarding the Nation. The Pyongyang regime had denounced the exercise as a provocation.
North Korea claimed that South Korea started the clash by firing "dozens of shells" at its territory. South Korea denied that charge, saying it had fired toward the west, not the north, as part of its military drills. In response to the attack, South Korea said it fired 155mm self-propelled howitzers at the North and scrambled fighter jets.
"North Korea wants the United States's recognition and international aid while pursuing nuclear ambition," said Kim Heung-kyu, a professor at Sungshin's Women's University. "But both South Korean and American government are sticking to the principles of no negotiation.
"Tuesday's attack was an attempt to refresh and put pressure on the U.S. and South Korea to step back. It is not a one-time problem but will repeat in the future."
Seo Yoonjung is a special correspondent. Richburg reported from Beijing. Researcher Wang Juan in Shanghai contributed to this report.