By Kim Deok-hyun
SEOUL, Nov. 23 (Yonhap) -- North Korea fired a barrage of artillery rounds onto a South Korean island on Tuesday, killing two marines and setting on fire scores of civilian houses, in one of the worst attacks on the South since the Korean War.
The "intentional and premeditated" attack marks an escalation in the extent of North Korea's provocation as several civilians were also hurt, South Korean military officials said.
The North's bombardment on the South's Yeonpyeong Island, which lies just south of the tense Yellow Sea border between the two Koreas, came amid fresh tensions over Pyongyang's claim of having a new uranium enrichment facility and just two months after power transition in North Korea became apparent with the debut of Kim Jong-un, the youngest son of the country's top leader Kim Jong-il.
Some see Pyongyang's moves as a politically calculated strategy to consolidate power around the junior Kim as he prepares to take over the regime.
South Korea immediately returned fire and lobbed more than 80 shells toward North Korean artillery positions on the west coast and sent fighter jets to the island. All of the country's troops were placed on maximum alert, officials said.
"This firing of coastline artillery by North Korea is clearly an intentional and premeditated attack that violates the Korean War armistice agreement," said Lt. Gen. Lee Hong-ki of the South's Joint Chiefs of Staff (JCS).
The general strongly condemned North Korea for "indiscriminately firing shells toward residential areas for civilians," calling the attack an "inhumane atrocity."
Lee confirmed two marines stationed at the island's Howitzer installation died from related injuries while being transported to a hospital in Seoul by helicopter. Six were seriously injured and 10 others suffered minor injuries, he said. Three civilians were also reported to have been hurt, with two people, an elderly and a schoolgirl, missing.
The two dead marines were identified as Sgt. Seo Jeong-woo, 24, and Pvt. Moon Kwang-wook, 20.
"Currently, our military is focusing on deterring further provocation from the North and managing the situation stably," Lee told a press briefing. "But if North Korea stages further provocation, we will act sternly against it."
Hours after the attack, the North's Supreme Command of the Korean People's Army accused the South of initiating the firing and threatened "merciless military attacks" if South Korea violates its waters.
"Should the South Korean puppet group dare intrude into the territorial waters of the DPRK (North Korea) even 0.001 mm, the revolutionary armed forces of the DPRK will unhesitatingly continue taking merciless military counter-actions against it," the North's command said in a "communique" carried by Pyongyang's Korean Central News Agency.
The North's attack drew instant international condemnation. In a statement. the White House said the United States "strongly condemns this attack and calls on North Korea to halt its belligerent action." Similar statements from Europe followed.
The North's artillery shells started falling on Yeonpyeong Island, about 80 kilometers northwest of the port of Incheon, and its surrounding waters around 2:34 p.m., according to Col. Lee Bung-woo, a JCS spokesman. Officials said some 100 shells were fired by the North before the crossfire ended about an hour later.
The clash came amid rising tensions on the peninsula following North Korea's claim that it is running a highly sophisticated uranium enrichment plant and building a light-water reactor, which, if true, would greatly bolster its nuclear stockpile and arms development.
Seoul said Tuesday's attack was a blatant violation of the armistice that ended the 1950-53 Korean War. A foreign ministry official said the government was looking at possibly referring the latest provocation to the United Nations.
The South's presidential office Cheong Wa Dae called the North's action a "clear military provocation" and warned that any further attack would be dealt with through "stern retaliation."
"North Korea will have to bear full responsibility" for Tuesday's attack, Cheong Wa Dae said.
President Lee, ordering the military to be ready with "multiple-fold retaliation" against Pyongyang, said Seoul could strike the North's missile base if there were signs of further attack from Pyongyang.
Seoul's Unification Ministry, which handles inter-Korean affairs, said it was indefinitely postponing Red Cross talks that were set for Thursday.
Some 1,600 residents at Yeonpyeong Island were all evacuated to shelters, but they said the island was still in a state of chaos, adding that homes and forests were ablaze in fire and in a near blackout from power outages.
"I was at home when I was surprised by the sounds of bomb explosions. As I stepped out of my home, I saw the entire village had already turned into a sea of fire," said a 35-year-old resident who identified himself only as Kim.
"I'm now staying in a shelter along with other villagers, but I'm still shaking with fear."
The JCS estimated that some 100 shells landed on and near Yeonpyeong Island, which lies about 3 kilometers south of the Yellow Sea border, until 4:42 p.m.
JCS officials said the South's military sent a telephone message at 5:55 p.m. to North Korea to demand the shelling be stopped.
The South's Navy has been conducting an annual military drill near the island since Monday, which North Korea protested against as recently as Tuesday morning.
Military officials, however, said the drill that was conducted Tuesday was a routine firing exercise and not related to the annual maneuver.
JCS Chairman Han Min-koo and Gen. Walter Sharp, commander of some 28,500 U.S. troops in the South, held telephone talks and agreed to consider declaring a "joint crisis management," the JCS spokesman said.
The western sea border was the scene of bloody gun battles between the navies of the two Koreas in 1999, 2002 and most recently in November last year.
Tension escalated in March when a South Korean warship, the Cheonan, sank in the Yellow Sea, leaving 46 sailors dead. A Seoul-led international investigation team blamed a North Korean torpedo attack for the tragedy, but Pyongyang denies any responsibility.
The two Koreas are still technically at war because their 1950-53 Korean War ended with an armistice, not a peace treaty.
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