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U.S. Carrier Heads For War Games In Korean Waters

Destroyed houses are seen Wednesday on Yeonpyeong Island, South Korea, following artillery exchange between North and South Korea on Tuesday.
Dong-a Ilbo
Destroyed houses are seen Wednesday on Yeonpyeong Island, South Korea, following artillery exchange between North and South Korea on Tuesday.

The U.S. and South Korea prepared to hold joint war games this weekend following North Korea's shelling of a South-held island near their disputed border that ratcheted tensions on the peninsula to new highs.

The aircraft carrier George Washington was headed to Korean waters to join U.S. and South Korean vessels for previously scheduled military exercises to begin Sunday. The carrier left Japan and streamed toward the Yellow Sea, between the Korean peninsula and the Chinese coast.

Pyongyang issued fresh warnings that the South's actions were driving the peninsula to the brink of war.

President Obama spoke to his South Korean counterpart, Lee Myung-bak, on Tuesday and reaffirmed Washington's pledge to "stand shoulder to shoulder" with Seoul. Obama also called upon China to restrain its ally Pyongyang.

The death toll from the North's attack on the tiny island of Yeonpyeong rose to four Wednesday after the bodies of two men were discovered buried under rubble at a construction site — the first civilian casualties reported. Two South Korean marines also died, and dozens of people were injured.

Timing Of Attack Points To Brinkmanship, Experts Say

North Korea claimed that troops from the South, which was holding military drills at the time, were the first to fire. The communist country also threatened more attacks if provoked by South Korea.

But Daniel Sneider, a Korea expert at Stanford University's Shorenstein Asia-Pacific Research Center, said the attack appeared to be "unprovoked."

"The North Korean artillery fire ... may be timed to the exercise in order to give them the cover of claiming that they were responding in some way to South Korean actions," he said.

The attack — just days after North Korea unveiled a stunning new uranium plant — had specific political and strategic aims: mainly securing talks with the U.S, said Kim Tae-joon of the National Defence University's department of military strategy in Seoul.

"After unveiling uranium facilities, South Korea and the U.S. maintained their hardline position, rather than paying attention to the change in circumstances," Kim said. "Relations are deadlocked, so by creating tension it's demanding attention and it wants to get an upper hand in negotiations. It's a kind of brinkmanship."

South Korea vowed retaliation and said Wednesday that it would strengthen military forces in the disputed western waters near Yeonpyeong and halt aid to the communist North.

South Korea sent two ships carrying 2,000 boxes of relief supplies to the island Wednesday. Coast guard official Kim Dong-jin said about 340 residents who escaped the shelling were to arrive at the port city of Incheon aboard a Coast Guard ship around mid-afternoon.

On the streets of Seoul, there was no sense of panic, but rather an undercurrent of anxiety.

"I was very frightened, and it reminded me to treasure my life, which can end so suddenly," said 20-year-old student Jeon Seo-yeon.

Images from Yeonpyeong released by the local government and obtained through YTN television showed people huddled in emergency shelters, children wrapped in blankets, rows of destroyed houses with collapsed walls, blown out windows and charred roofs. A man with a shovel walked through the rubble.

The skirmish began at around 2:30 p.m. local time Tuesday when Pyongyang's forces rained artillery shells on Yeonpyeong. The North fired about 200 rounds, and the South returned fire with about 80 rounds of artillery and scrambled fighter jets in an exchange that reportedly lasted an hour.

Obama Highlights 'Serious And Ongoing Threat'

The U.S. government called the North's barrages an outrageous, unprovoked attack, but sought to avoid any escalation and did not reposition any of its 29,000 troops stationed in the South.

"South Korea is our ally. It has been since the Korean War," Obama told ABC News in an interview. "And we strongly affirm our commitment to defend South Korea as part of that alliance."

But he would not speculate when asked about military options.

"We strongly condemn the attack and we are rallying the international community to put pressure on North Korea," Obama said in the interview, specifically citing the need for China's help. Every nation in the region, he said, must know "this is a serious and ongoing threat."

An administration official said Tuesday evening that U.S. officials in Washington and in Beijing were appealing strongly to China to condemn the attack by arguing that it was an act that threatened the stability of the entire region, not just the Korean peninsula. The official spoke on the condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the matter.

South Korean Defense Minister Kim Tae-young told lawmakers Wednesday that the military would send reinforcements to five islands near the disputed sea border, but provided no details.

South Korea also said it would continue another previously scheduled military drill set for a different part of the Yellow Sea, about 70 miles south of the disputed waters near Yeonpyeong. The Joint Chiefs of Staff said the military drill by the South Korean army, navy, air force and marines would continue until Nov. 30 as previously scheduled.

Separately, South Korea said it was suspending promised aid shipments of cement and medicine worth $506,000. The government also ordered eight civic groups to stop delivering aid worth $2.3 million to North Korea.

U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon called the attack one of the "gravest incidents" since the end of the Korean War. The bombardment marks the first time the North has attacked civilian soil in the South since the 1953 cease-fire.

In a statement Wednesday, the top U.S. military officer in South Korea, Gen. Walter Sharp, called on Pyongyang to abide by the 1953 armistice. North Korea does not recognize the western maritime border drawn unilaterally by the U.N. at the close of the Korean conflict.

Korean Peninsula On Edge

Tensions between the two nations have been high since North Korea revealed the enrichment facility to a visiting American scientist, and after the sinking of a South Korean warship in March that killed 46 sailors. Seoul blamed a North Korean torpedo, while Pyongyang has denied any responsibility.

Tuesday's skirmish also comes just six weeks after North Korean leader Kim Jong Il unveiled his youngest son, Kim Jong Un, as his heir apparent.

"From the moment that he was decided as the power successor, here in South Korea, security experts like me, expected more tension between the two Koreas, and also North Korea will have more reasons to stick to the nuclear weapons," said Kim Tae-woo at the Korea Institute for Defense Analysis.

North and South Korea have fought three bloody skirmishes near the maritime border in recent years, most recently in November 2009. That battle left one North Korean officer dead and three others wounded, according to South Korean officials.

Two deadly clashes have previously erupted around Yeonpyeong. In a gun battle in June 2002, one South Korean warship sank, killing six sailors. The North said it also suffered casualties, but didn't confirm how many. In a 1999 clash, South Korea said several sailors were wounded and up to 30 North Koreans died.

With reporting from Michael Rhee and NPR's Louisa Lim in Seoul, Mike Shuster and Scott Neuman. This story contains material from The Associated Press.