WASHINGTON — President Barack Obama's top national security aides met Tuesday to develop a response to North Korea's deadly shelling of a South Korean military installation as the United States struggled for the second time this year to keep a North Korean provocation from escalating into war.
Obama, who attended the end of the emergency session after a trip to a Chrysler plant, called South Korea's president, Lee Myung Bak, Tuesday night to express U.S. solidarity and talk about a coordinated response.
"South Korea is our ally. It has been since the Korean War," Obama said earlier in an interview with ABC. "And we strongly affirm our commitment to defend South Korea as part of that alliance. ... We strongly condemn the attack and we are rallying the international community to put pressure on North Korea."
Obama specifically cited the need for help from China, which has sought to maintain its influence with the North during what could be a struggle over leadership succession.
But as the State Department's lead negotiator with the North, Sung Kim, said just a few hours before the attack began, "North Korea is the land of lousy options." Obama is once again forced to choose between equally unpalatable choices: responding with verbal condemnations and a modest tightening of sanctions, which has done little to halt new attacks, and reacting strongly, which could risk a broad war in which South Korea's vibrant capital, Seoul, would be the first target.
As top U.S. officials gathered in the Situation Room late Tuesday, the South Korean military went into what it termed "crisis status." Lee said he would order strikes on a North Korean base if there were indications of new attacks.
North Korea's artillery shells fell on Yeonpyeong island, a fishing village whose residents fled by ferry to the mainland city of Inchon — where Gen. Douglas MacArthur landed 60 years ago this fall, three months after the outbreak of the Korean War.
Today, Inchon is the site of South Korea's gleaming airport, symbolizing the vulnerability of one of the world's most vibrant economies to the artillery of one of the world's most isolated and poorest nations.
News reports indicated that about 175 artillery shells were fired by the North and by the South in response Tuesday.
The New York Times cited an unnamed U.S. official who had looked at satellite images as saying there was no visible evidence of preparations for a general war. Historically, the North's attacks have been lightning raids, after which the North Koreans have backed off to watch the world's reaction. This one came just hours after the South Koreans had completed a long-planned set of military exercises.
Television reports showed large plumes of black smoke spiraling from the island, as dozens of houses caught fire. The shelling killed two South Korean marines and wounded 18 people. The South put its fighter planes on alert — but, tellingly, did not put them in the air or strike at the North's artillery bases. Obama was awakened at 3:55 a.m. by his new national security adviser, Thomas E. Donilon, who told him of the attack.
The United States did not reposition any of its 29,000 troops in the South. Obama, speaking to ABC News, declined to speculate when asked about military options.
Just 11 days before the attack, North Korea had invited a Stanford University nuclear scientist to Yongbyon, its primary nuclear site and showed him what was described as a just completed centrifuge plant that, if it goes fully operational, should enable North Korea to enrich uranium into nuclear fuel and add to its arsenal of eight to 12 nuclear weapons.
Taken together, the nuclear demonstration and the attack were widely interpreted as an effort to bolster the credentials of Kim Jong Un, the heir apparent as the country's leader, and the son and grandson of the only two men who have run the country. When his father, Kim Jong Il, North Korea's ailing leader, was establishing his credentials, the North conducted a similar series of attacks.
While Obama was elected on a promise of diplomatic engagement, his strategy toward the North for the past two years, called "strategic patience," has been to demonstrate that Washington would not engage until the North ceased provocations and demonstrated that it was living up to past commitments to dismantle, and ultimately give up, its nuclear capacity.
The provocations have now increased markedly, and it is not clear what new options are available. Beijing's first reaction Tuesday was to call for a resumption of the six-nation talks with North and South Korea, Russia, Japan, China and the United States. The last such meeting of these participants was two years ago, at the end of the Bush administration.
Obama's aides made it clear in interviews that the United States had no intention of returning to those talks soon. But its leverage is limited.
When North Korea set off a nuclear test last year just months after Obama took office, the United States won passage of a U.N. Security Council resolution that imposed far harsher sanctions. The sanctions gave countries the right, and responsibility, to board North Korean ships and planes that landed at ports around the world and to inspect them for weapons. The effort seemed partly successful — but the equipment in the centrifuge plant is so new that it is clear that the trade restrictions did not stop the North from building what Siegfried S. Hecker, the visiting scientist, called an "ultramodern" nuclear complex.
By far the biggest recent disruption of relations came in March, when a sudden explosion sank a South Korean warship, killing 46 sailors. South Korean and international investigators said the blast was caused by a North Korean torpedo. The North has denied it. If the North was responsible for the sinking, it would be the most lethal military attack since the official end of the Korean War in 1953.
Lee of South Korea decided not to respond militarily to the sinking and was praised by Washington for his restraint. To make North Korea pay a price, he imposed new food restrictions on the North and ended trade worth several hundred million dollars that had been intended to induce the desperately poor North Koreans to choose income over military strikes. But some analysts believed that the cutoff in food aid was an excuse, if not a motivation, for Tuesday's attack.
Choi Jin Wook, a North Korea expert at the Korea Institute for National Unification in Seoul, said, "It's a sign of North Korea's increasing frustration."
"Washington has turned a deaf ear to Pyongyang, and North Korea is saying: 'Look here. We're still alive. We can cause trouble. You can't ignore us.'"
Yet for Obama, much stronger responses, including a naval quarantine of the North, carry huge risks. A face-off on the Korean Peninsula would require tens of thousands of troops, air power and the possibility of a resumption of the Korean War, a battle that U.S. officials believe would not last long, but might end in the destruction of Seoul if the North unleashed artillery batteries near the border.