YEONPYEONG ISLAND, South Korea — North Korea warned today that planned U.S.-South Korean military drills are pushing the peninsula to the brink of war as a U.S. military commander headed to an island devastated this week by a North Korean artillery barrage.
North Korea's state news agency said drills this weekend involving South Korean forces and a U.S. nuclear powered supercarrier in waters south of Tuesday's skirmish between the rival Koreas are a reckless plan by "trigger-happy elements" and that the maneuvers target the North.
"The situation on the Korean peninsula is inching closer to the brink of war," the dispatch from the Korean Central News Agency said.
The comments came ahead of a planned visit today by Gen. Walter Sharp, the U.S. military commander in South Korea, to Yeonpyeong Island.
Four South Koreans — two marines and two civilians — were killed in the skirmish.
South Korean President Lee Myung Bak has ordered reinforcements for about 4,000 troops on Yeonpyeong and four other Yellow Sea islands, as well as top-level weaponry for the soldiers and upgraded rules of engagement that would create a new category of response when civilian areas are targeted.
He also sacked Defense Minister Kim Tae Young amid intense criticism over lapses in the country's response to the attack.
The new rules of engagement will be based on whether military or civilian sites are the targets, said Lee's chief spokesman Hong Sang Pyo.
Previously, South Korean forces were allowed to respond only in kind — if the North fired artillery, the South could answer only with artillery — to contain any dispute. Now, the military would be allowed to respond with greater force.
But Lee, who came to office two years ago vowing to get tough with the North, has little maneuvering room in formulating a response. While the attack appears to have pushed anti-North Korean sentiment to its highest level in years, there is little public support in South Korea for taking military action against the North that might lead to an escalation of hostilities.
"North Korea has nothing to lose, while we have everything to lose," said Kang Won Taek, a professor of politics at Seoul National University. "Lee Myung Bak has no choice but to soften his tone to keep this country peaceful. It is not an appealing choice, but it is the only realistic choice."
Washington and Seoul also ratcheted up pressure on China, North Korea's main ally and biggest benefactor, to restrain Pyongyang.
Without criticizing the North, Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao responded by calling on all sides to show "maximum restraint" and pushed again to restart the six-nation talks aimed at persuading North Korea to dismantle its nuclear programs in exchange for aid. Foreign Minister Yang Jiechi, meanwhile, canceled a trip to Seoul this week.
Though North Korea regularly threatens its rival, the two Koreas are required to abide by an armistice signed in 1953 at the end of their three-year war.
North Korea does not recognize the maritime line drawn by U.N. forces and blamed South Korean military maneuvers near Yeonpyeong Island this week for the clash, calling them a violation of its territory.
The disputed waters have been the site of three other deadly naval skirmishes since 1999. The most costly incident was the sinking of a South Korean warship eight months ago that killed 46 sailors.
Information from the Associated Press, the Los Angeles Times and the New York Times was used in this report.