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 the island targeted by the North Korean attack to show solidarity with ally Seoul.
Four South Koreans – two marines and two civilians – were killed in the hour-long skirmish Tuesday after North Korea unleashed a hail of artillery on Yeonpyeong, but the island was quiet this morning, with most residents having evacuated to the mainland.
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 son Kim Jong Un, who is in his late 20s and is expected to eventually succeed his ailing father.
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 his defense minister amid intense criticism over lapses in the country’s response to the attack.
North Korea blamed South Korean drills this week as the motivation behind its attack – but Lee said the South could not afford to abandon such preparation now.
“We should not ease our sense of crisis in preparation for the possibility of another provocation by North Korea,” spokesman Hong Sang-pyo quoted President Lee Myung-bak as saying. “A provocation like this can recur any time.”
On Thursday, Lee accepted Defense Minister Kim Tae-young’s offer to resign after lawmakers criticized the government, claiming officials were unprepared for the attack and that the military response was too slow.
Skirmishes between the Korean militaries are not uncommon, but North Korea’s heavy bombardment of Yeonpyeong Island took hostilities to a new level because civilians were killed.
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