North Korea’s attack on a civilian- populated South Korean island near their disputed border drew rebukes from the U.S. and European governments along with warnings that the exchange of artillery fire threatened regional peace.
South Korea scrambled fighter jets and returned artillery fire after North Korea provoked the peninsula’s most serious confrontation in decades by lobbing dozens of shells onto Yeonpyeong island, located near the border of both countries on the peninsula’s west coast. The shelling killed two South Korean soldiers and wounded at least 14.
“The United States strongly condemns this attack and calls on North Korea to halt its belligerent action,” the White House said today in a statement. The U.S., which stations about 25,000 troops in South Korea, is in contact with Seoul’s government, the statement said.
Tensions with North Korea have risen in the past year after the sinking of a South Korean warship, the Cheonan, in March that killed 46 sailors. President Barack Obama dispatched his envoy, Stephen Bosworth, to Asia this week after reports by a U.S. scientist that North Korea had revealed a new uranium- enrichment plant.
North Korea initiated the exchange of artillery fire with South Korea, Bosworth told reporters in Beijing at a news conference after meeting with Chinese officials. The U.S. and China share the view that “such conflict is very undesirable,” and agreed that all sides should exercise restraint, Bosworth said.
Bosworth said his talks with China on North Korea’s revelations concerning uranium enrichment “very useful,” and included a “full exchange of views.” The U.S. and China have agreed to continue coordination and consultation on the uranium- enrichment issue, he said.
North Korea is seeking to extract concessions from countries that oppose its nuclear program, said Jan Techau, an analyst at the NATO Defense College in Rome.
“The North Koreans are always trying to blackmail the rest of the world,” Techau said in a phone interview. “A few years ago they were firing missiles and now they’re firing shells.”
China expressed “concern” over the North Korean shelling.
“We hope the parties do more to contribute to peace and stability on the Korean Peninsula,” Foreign Ministry spokesman Hong Lei told reporters in Beijing. Reports on North Korea’s new uranium-enrichment plant underscore the need for disarmament talks, Hong said.
China’s role will be crucial in damping the conflict, said Shada Islam, an Asia expert at the Brussels-based European Policy Centre.
“This will require diplomacy by China which is the only country that has any clout in North Korea,” Islam said in a telephone interview.
U.K. Foreign Minister William Hague said he “strongly condemns” the North Korean attack. German Foreign Minister Guido Westerwelle said the “military provocation endangers peace in the region.”
Russia’s Foreign Ministry expressed “deep concern” over the artillery exchange. “Russia decisively condemns any use of force between states and proceeds from the position that all existing disputes should be resolved exclusively by political and diplomatic means,” the ministry said on its website.
Russia, which shares a border with North Korea, called for restraint from both sides, according to the statement.
Taiwan urged North and South Korea to exercise restraint so as to maintain peace and stability in the Korean peninsula, Johnny Chiang, the island’s Cabinet spokesman, said at a briefing broadcast on local television.
“The nastiness will probably continue for at least a few days,” Kenneth Quinones, former U.S. State Department director of North Korean affairs and a professor at Akita International University in Japan, said in an interview. “I would expect some UN Security Council action very, very soon.”
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