The United States and South Korea Wednesday announced plans for naval war games as Washington vowed to stand “shoulder to shoulder” with Seoul after one of the worst attacks by North Korea in decades.
In their first joint response to Tuesday’s deadly attack on a South Korean island, presidents Barack Obama and Lee Myung-Bak agreed on the military exercises, as pressure built on China to rein in its wayward ally.
South Korea, after decrying an “inhumane atrocity” against defenceless civilians, said it was suspending promised flood aid to North Korea. It has already called off talks on reuniting families split by the Korean War.
The artillery bombardment on Yeonpyeong island, near the disputed inter-Korean Yellow Sea border killed two civilians and two South Korean marines and sent panicked civilians fleeing.
It fuelled anxiety about North Korea’s intentions, days after a new nuclear programme came to light.
Japan’s Prime Minister Naoto Kan called on China to use its “significant influence over North Korea” to tamp down tensions.
A White House statement said Obama telephoned Lee to declare that the United States “stands shoulder to shoulder” with its ally South Korea, which is home to 28,500 US troops.
The two leaders agreed to hold “combined military exercises and enhanced training in the days ahead”, the statement said.
The four-day defensive exercise involving a US aircraft carrier will start Sunday in the Yellow Sea, US Forces Korea said.
It said the drill was planned well before the “unprovoked artillery attack” but it demonstrated the US “commitment to regional stability through deterrence”.
Media reports said it was the first time the North has shelled South Korean soil and civilian areas since the 1950-53 war.
Outraged Seoul newspapers urged the government to hit back.
“A club is the only medicine for a mad dog,” Dong-A Ilbo said, calling the shelling a “war crime” that demanded a military riposte.
South Korea said it would deploy more artillery on Yeonpyeong after officials announced that the North fired up to 170 artillery shells, of which 80 hit the island and burnt down 19 homes.
Local officials who visited the frontline island released graphic photos of scorched and ruined buildings, with debris littering the streets.
At least 700 people have fled Yeonpyeong, which is home to at least 1,500 civilians and a permanent military base.
The attack “targeted our land and attacked civilians”, Lee was quoted by his spokesman as saying. “The number of victims may be small but the meaning is far bigger.”
He ordered reinforcements for five frontline islands and told the military to study possible changes to rules of engagement, allowing it to respond more actively to provocations.
China — North Korea’s main ally and economic prop — has expressed concern but not publicly criticised the North. Its media have given generally sympathetic coverage to Pyongyang’s version of events.
North Korea’s supreme command accused South Korea of firing first.
“We’re going to work with China, we’re going to work with all our six-party partners on a response (to the shelling),” US State Department spokesman Mark Toner said, referring to an international group tackling North Korea’s nuclear ambitions.
The firing came after North Korea’s disclosure of an apparently operational uranium enrichment plant — a second potential way of building a nuclear bomb.
It also comes as North Korea prepares for an eventual succession from Kim Jong-Il to his youngest son Jong-Un.
“We judged that after revealing the new uranium enrichment facility on November 12, North Korea made the artillery attack to give Kim Jong-Un the status of a strong leader,” the South’s Defence Minister Kim Tae-Young told parliament.
China is under mounting pressure to intervene, despite its reluctance to do anything to destabilise the regime in Pyongyang.
“We should ask China, which has significant influence over North Korea, to make efforts to jointly restrain North Korean actions,” Kan said at a Japanese cabinet task force meeting set up in response to the attack.
Australia called the “outrageously provocative” shelling a threat to the entire region’s stability and Foreign Minister Kevin Rudd said: “I believe it’s important now for China to bring all of its influence to bear on North Korea.”
Tensions have been high since the deadly sinking of a South Korean warship in March, which Seoul blamed on a North Korean torpedo attack. Pyongyang rejects the charge.