North Korea has accused South Korea of using civilians as human shields around artillery positions on an island attacked by the North, seeking to justify a bombardment that killed four South Koreans and sent tensions soaring.
The comments Saturday came on the eve of U.S.-South Korean war games in the Yellow Sea that have enraged the North and worried neighbouring China, and after the South Korean marine commander vowed revenge at a funeral for two marines killed in the barrage.
Tuesday’s attack on Yeonpyeong Island, which houses military bases and tiny fishing communities, also killed two civilians in one of the worst artillery attacks on South Korean territory since the 1950-53 Korean War.
North Korea’s state news agency said that although “it is very regrettable, if it is true, that civilian casualties occurred on Yeonpyeong island, its responsibility lies in enemies’ inhumane action of creating a ‘human shield’ by deploying civilians around artillery positions.”
The North said its enemies are “now working hard to dramatize ‘civilian casualties’ as part of its propaganda campaign, creating the impression that the defenceless civilians were exposed to ‘indiscriminate shelling’ all of a sudden from the” North.
South Korea was conducting artillery drills on Tuesday from the island, located just seven miles (11 kilometers) from North Korea’s mainland, but fired away from the mainland.
The North said it warned South Korea to halt the drills on the morning of the attack, as part of “superhuman efforts to prevent the clash to the last moment.”
The North said that Sunday’s planned U.S.-South Korean war games showed that the United States was “the arch criminal who deliberately planned the incident and wire-pulled it behind the scene.”
The South Korean commander, Maj. Gen. You Nak-jun, said the South’s retaliation would be a “thousand-fold” as dignitaries and relatives laid white flowers at an altar during Saturday’s funeral.
As protesters in Seoul demanded their government take sterner action against North Korea, the North issued new warnings against the war games scheduled to start on Sunday with a U.S. nuclear-powered aircraft carrier in the Yellow Sea.
The North called the games an “unpardonable provocation” and warning of retaliatory attacks creating a “sea of fire” if its own territory is violated. The comments ran on North Korea’s state-run Uriminzokkiri website a day after the North’s warnings that the peninsula was on the “brink of war.”
China, under pressure from the U.S. and South Korea to rein in its ally Pyongyang, urged both sides to show restraint while Washington played down the belligerent rhetoric, noting that the weekend war games were routine and planned well before last week’s attack.
“The pressing task now is to put the situation under control and prevent a recurrence of similar incidents,” Chinese Foreign Minister Yang Jiechi told U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton by phone, according to the ministry’s website.
The North’s artillery fire on Tuesday destroyed civilian homes as well as military bases on Yeonpyeong Island in a major escalation of their sporadic skirmishes along the disputed sea border. The attack, eight months after a torpedo sank a South Korean warship, killing 46 sailors, laid bare Seoul’s weaknesses in defence 60 years after the Korean War.
North Korea does not recognize the maritime border drawn by the U.N. at the close of the three-year war in 1953, and considers the waters around Yeonpyeong Island, just seven miles (11 kilometers) from its shores, as its territory.
The heightened animosity between the Koreas comes as the nuclear-armed North undergoes a delicate transition of power from leader Kim Jong Il to his young, inexperienced son Kim Jong Un, who is in his late 20s and is expected to eventually succeed his ailing father.
Tuesday’s attack came days after North Korea revealed a new uranium enrichment programme that could improve its ability to make and deliver nuclear weapons, sending the message that new regime is as tough and volatile as ever and highlighting the urgency of restarting disarmament talks with the North.
South Korea’s government, meanwhile, struggled to recoup from the attacks, replacing is defence minister on Friday.
About former 70 special forces troops, wearing white head bands, scuffled with riot police in front of the Defense Ministry to protest what they called the government’s weak response to the attacks, pummelling the riot troops’ helmets with wooden stakes and spraying fire extinguishers.
Several hundred police pushed back with shields.
Elsewhere in Seoul activists held a peaceful, but noisy, rally to denounce North Korea.
China’s foreign minister met with the North Korean ambassador to Beijing, Chinese state media said, an apparent effort to highlight China’s role as a responsible actor, and placate the U.S. and the South. China has expressed mild concern about the impending war games, in contrast to its strong protests over earlier rounds.
“The Chinese government is trying to send Pyongyang a signal that if they continue to be so provocative, China will just leave the North Koreans to themselves,” said Zhu Feng, director of Peking University’s Centre for International and Strategic Studies.
China is impoverished North Korea’s biggest benefactor and one of its only allies.
In Washington, the Pentagon played down any notion that the weekend manoeuvres with South Korea, set to include the USS George Washington supercarrier, were a provocation.
“We have exercised there regularly,” Capt. Darryn James, a Defence Department spokesman in Washington, said Friday. “And all of these exercises are in international waters.”
President Lee Myung-bak has ordered reinforcements for the 4,000 troops on Yeonpyeong and four other Yellow Sea islands, as well as top-level weaponry and upgraded rules of engagement.
Most of the islanders fled to the mainland after Tuesday’s hail of artillery set off fierce blazes that destroyed many of their communities. It will take six months to two years for island communities to rebuild, disaster relief official Kim Sang-ryul said.
Soldiers assembled toilets on Saturday for temporary shelters being built on the island by teams of relief workers.
In Seongnam, near Seoul, South Korea’s prime minister and marine commander joined some 600 mourners attending the funeral for the two dead marines at a packed gymnasium at a military hospital.
As a brass band played sombre music, they placed chrysanthemums, a traditional mourning flower, before framed photographs of the two men. One marine’s mother fell forward in her seat in grief.
“Our marine corps ... will carry out a hundred-or thousand-fold” retaliation against North Korea for Tuesday’s attack, said You, the marine commander. He did not elaborate.
Passers-by paused at Seoul’s main train station to watch funeral footage on a big screen.
“Once the enemy attacks us, it is our duty to respond even more strongly,” said student Jeon Hyun-soo, 19. “The South Korean people want this.”