Conflict Alert: North Korea Fires Missles and Artillery Into South Korea


The latest development comes as the United States and its allies accused North Korea of being a danger to the region after it showed off its latest advances in uranium enrichment, but Washington said it was still open to talks. Photograph: Reuters

North Korea fired scores of artillery shells at a South Korean island today, killing two soldiers, in one of the heaviest attacks on its neighbour since the Korean War ended in 1953.

The barrage was close to a disputed maritime border on the west of the divided peninsula and the scene of deadly clashes in the past.

The South fired back and sent a fighter jet to the area after the attack. It said it was conducting military drills in the area at the time but said it had not been firing at the North.

The attack came as the reclusive North, and its ally China, presses regional powers to return to negotiations on its nuclear weapons programme and revelations at the weekend Pyongyang is fast developing another source of material to make atomic weapons.

It also follows moves by leader Kim Jong-il to make his youngest, but unproven, son his heir apparent, leading some analysts to question whether the bombardment might in part have been an attempt to burnish the ruling family’s image with the military.

“Houses and mountains are on fire and people are evacuating. You can’t see very well because of plumes of smoke,” a witness on the island told YTN Television before the shelling, which lasted about an hour, ended.

YTN said at least 200 North Korean shells hit Yeonpyeong, which lies off the west coast of the divided peninsula near a disputed maritime border. Most landed on a military base there.

Photographs from Yeongyeong island, just 120km west of Seoul, showed columns of smoke rising from buildings. Two soldiers were killed in the attack, 17 wounded. Three civilians were also hurt.

South Korean president Lee Myung-bak, who has pursued a hard line with the North since taking office nearly three years ago, said a response had to be firm following the attack. But he made no suggestion the South would retaliate further, suggesting Seoul was taking a measured response to prevent things getting out of hand.

The North has a huge array of artillery pointed at Seoul that could decimate an urban area home to around 25 million people and cause major damage to its trillion dollar economy.

The two Koreas are still technically at war – the Korean War ended only with a truce – and tension rose sharply early this year after Seoul accused the North of torpedoing one of its navy vessels, killing 46 sailors.

North Korea said its neighbour started the fight. “Despite our repeated warnings, South Korea fired dozens of shells … and we’ve taken strong military action immediately,” its KCNA news agency said in a brief statement.

The international community was quick to express alarm at the sudden rise in tension in a region that is home to three of the world’s biggest economies – China, Japan and South Korea.

The White House condemned the attack and demanded the action cease. “The United States strongly condemns this attack and calls on North Korea to halt its belligerent action,” the White House said in a statement.

A French diplomatic source said the UN Security Council would call an emergency meeting in a day or two over North Korea, against which it has imposed heavy economic sanctions for previous nuclear and missile tests.

Russian foreign minister Sergei Lavrov called the escalation in tensions a “colossal danger”.

China was careful to avoid taking sides, calling on both Koreas to “do more to contribute to peace”.

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