SEONGNAM/SEOUL, South Korea, Nov. 27 (Yonhap) -- In a nationally televised funeral on Saturday, South Koreans mourned the deaths of two marines killed in an artillery clash with North Korea earlier in the week, vowing retaliation as regional tensions soared ahead of massive U.S.-South Korean naval drills.
The joint funeral for Staff Sergeant Seo Jeong-woo, 22, and Private First Class Mun Gwang-wook, 20, drew some 500 officials, including the premier, military commanders, politicians, foreign envoys, war veterans and civilians angered by Tuesday's clash.
Family members of the two marines wept in silence, some trying with little success to choke their tears down during the funeral at a military hospital in this city of Seongnam, just south of Seoul.
One middle-aged woman, who was dressed in black and appeared to be the mother of one of the slain marines, covered her mouth with white gloves even as tears kept pouring out of her eyes.
"We will pay back North Korea 100 times, 1,000 times for atrociously killing and wounding our soldiers, who were the pride of the Marines," Marine Corps. commander Yoo Nak-jun said in an eulogy.
North Korea denies initiating the exchange of artillery shells that also killed two South Korean construction workers on the western island of Yeonpyeong. The South and the U.S. will begin naval exercises mobilizing a nuclear-powered aircraft carrier in the Yellow Sea on Sunday in a show of force against Pyongyang.
Following a report earlier this week by the North's official Korean Central News Agency that the peninsula is inching to the "brink of war," a pro-Pyongyang daily in Tokyo warned Saturday that the planned exercises may bring about "a catastrophic situation."
The paper, Chosun Sinbo, published by pro-North Korean residents in Japan, is considered to be aligned with Pyongyang. Uriminzokkiri, the North's official Web site, repeated the argument that any firing that takes place near Yeonpyeong will be considered an attack because shells are "bound to fall in our territorial waters."
"The U.S. and South Korea must not run rampantly, but understand that it is our position that we will deal a merciless shower of fire against those who provoke first," it said.
The warning was largely a reiteration of a statement issued on Friday by the Committee for the Peaceful Reunification of Korea, the North's main organ for affairs involving South Korea.
The North denies the validity of the de facto border between the Koreas in the Yellow Sea because it was drawn unilaterally by a U.S. general at the end of the 1950-53 Korean War, which technically continues to this day because it ended in a truce, not a peace pact.
The attack on Yeonpyeong was North Korea's first random targeting of South Korean civilians and troops since the war.
Following a silent prayer at the funeral, a solemn-faced Prime Minister Kim Hwang-sik laid chrysanthemums at a huge altar holding the portraits of the two slain South Korean soldiers. Defense Minister Kim Tae-young, whose resignation was accepted after the North Korean attack, was also seen paying his respects to the soldiers.
"If (North Korea) ever attacks the marines again, it will taste dreadful fear. Give us courage and power in protecting Yeonpyeong Island," S. Sgt. Han Min-soo said in an eulogy as if he were speaking to his "beloved" but now-deceased fellow marine Seo.
Bereaved family members sobbed with their heads bowed while the eulogies were read. Local media reported Seo was killed as he was hurrying back to the base after hearing the booms of explosions although he was on leave and about to sail away from the island.
After the funeral, dozens of former marines, back in uniform with their characteristically red name tags, sang military march songs. One held a banner that read, "Ghost-catching Marines will get you."
"I feel enraged that we were attacked without (clear) reasons. There should be stern retaliation against North Korea," Kim Ki-jung, a 27-year-old former marine, said. "We marines always pay back."
With his body wrapped in South Korea's national flag, Kim Hak-jin, 63, said he traveled hours to attend the funeral and deplored the division of the Koreas which he said made them "kill each other."
"I hope the lost lives may not go in vain," he said. The bodies of the marines were buried at a national cemetery in the central city of Daejeon later in the day.
In a barometer of anger among South Koreans, a defense official said Saturday that the defense ministry is considering re-defining North Korea as its "main enemy" when it releases its upcoming biennial defense white paper. The official did not wish to be named, apparently because of the ideological sensitivity of the issue.
The scheduled joint U.S.-South Korean drills will take place off the South Korean west coast town of Taean, about 100 kilometers south of the devastated island of Yeonpyeong, home to about 1,800 civilians.
Although the exercises were arranged before the North's shelling, Seoul and Washington announced the detailed schedule a day after it.
The USS George Washington, which has more than 70 fighter jets and an operational range of 1,000 kilometers, will mobilize for the drills that are set to run through Wednesday, defense officials say.
China has expressed unease and concern over the planned drills, arguing they will fuel the already-simmering tensions in the region. The drills will take place less than 300 kilometers east of the protruding Chinese province of Shandong.
In May, South Korea blamed North Korea for the March sinking of its warship, prompting Pyongyang to threaten war over retaliatory measures. The North denies any role in the sinking that killed 46 South Korean sailors.
Three deadly clashes between the navies of the divided countries have erupted since 1999 near the Yellow Sea border, also known as the Northern Limit Line. Since the North Korean shelling on Tuesday, South Korea has tightened even the most humanitarian aid to its impoverished communist neighbor, also halting the remainder of promised flood aid that had appeared to briefly ease tension.