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North Korea's artillery, rhetoric keep tensions high

BEIJING — The distant rumble of artillery practice in North Korea sent shell-shocked residents of Yeonpyeong Island scurrying to their bomb shelters Friday as a U.S. aircraft carrier cruised toward the region for military exercises this weekend.

South Korea was also struggling with domestic political fallout from Tuesday's deadly attack, which exposed the weakness of South Korean defenses and brought criticism of President Lee Myung Bak for failing to retaliate more forcefully. On Friday, he appointed a new defense minister, whose predecessor resigned Thursday for failing to keep forces ready in an area that has been the site of repeated military clashes with North Korea.

Although the explosions on Friday turned out to be training exercises inside North Korea, the reaction underscored the high anxiety after an attack Tuesday when the North shelled a South Korean island fishing community and military base with highly flammable ammunition that killed four people, including two civilian construction workers.

The North Korean propaganda machine also kept up its unnerving stream of threats Friday, warning it would unleash "a shower of dreadful fire and blow up the bulwark of the enemies."

"The situation on the Korean peninsula is inching closer to the brink of war," the North's official Korean Central News Agency said.

The fresh artillery blasts were especially defiant because they came as the U.S. commander in South Korea, Gen. Walter Sharp, toured the island to survey damage from Tuesday's attack. Many houses were blackened, half-collapsed or flattened, the streets littered with shattered windows, bent metal and other charred wreckage.

The heightened animosity between the Koreas is taking place as the 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.

Washington and Seoul have pressed China to use its influence on Pyongyang to ease tensions amid worries of all-out war, and a dispatch from Chinese state media on Friday — saying Beijing's foreign minister had met with the North Korean ambassador — appeared to be an effort to trumpet China's role as a responsible actor and placate the United States and the South.

China also expressed concern over any war games in waters within its exclusive economic zone, though the statement from the Foreign Ministry didn't mention the drills starting Sunday. That zone includes areas south of Yeonpyeong cited for possible maneuvers, though the exact location of the drills is not known.

The North Korean government does not recognize the maritime border drawn by the U.N. in 1953, and considers the waters around Yeonpyeong Island its territory.

Gen. Sharp said during his visit to the island that Tuesday's attack was a clear violation of an armistice signed in 1953 at the end of the three-year Korean War.

"We at United Nations Command will investigate this completely and call on North Korea to stop any future attacks," he said Friday.

Washington keeps more than 28,000 troops in South Korea to protect its ally from aggression — a legacy of the Korean War that is a sore point for North Korea, which cites the U.S. presence as the main reason behind its need for nuclear weapons.

The Chinese are also unhappy about the imminent arrival of the George Washington, which is to participate in U.S. and South Korean war games that begin Sunday and are designed to deter North Korea from further attacks.

Chinese Foreign Minister Yang Jiechi spoke by telephone Friday with his South Korean counterpart, Kim Sung Hwan, to express China's "principled position" — as South Korea's Yonhap news agency put it — about naval exercises in the Yellow Sea.

The George Washington was supposed to participate in joint naval exercises in the Yellow Sea over the summer, but China launched such a strenuous campaign against the presence of the nuclear-powered carrier that the war games were moved farther away.

Those exercises followed a March torpedo attack on a South Korean ship that left 46 sailors dead, for which China refused to hold North Korea accountable.

This time, the Chinese reaction has been more subdued. On Thursday, Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao simply warned against any "provocative military behavior" on the Korean peninsula, without specifying whose behavior he referred to.

Months ago, the United States had announced its intention to conduct the upcoming exercises in the Yellow Sea, despite objections from China. But the maneuvers had not been formally scheduled earlier this week when the North Korean artillery barrage occurred.

China's state-controlled press has been curiously silent about the participation of the George Washington in the naval exercises, although some hard-liners have been speaking out against it.

"Sending in an aircraft carrier is only going to make everybody in the neighborhood nervous and is not going to help the United States to achieve their goals. Nothing good can come out of it," said Xu Guangyu, a retired military officer who is now an analyst with the China Arms Control and Disarmament Association.

Joint exercises such as the one to begin Sunday allow allied navies to learn how to conduct missions together in a more seamless fashion, whether in operating vessels and aircraft in close proximity or in making sure that communications gear enables the allies to speak to each other. These exercises usually include playing through scenarios of possible attack by an adversary, as well as putting personnel and equipment through a series of preset combat drills.

Information from the Los Angeles Times, New York Times and Associated Press was used in this report.

North Korea's artillery, rhetoric keep tensions high 11/26/10 [Last modified: Monday, November 7, 2011 1:24pm]

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