YEONPYEONG ISLAND, South Korea (AP) — South Korea’s president ordered more troops to a front-line island and dumped his defense minister as the country grappled with lapses in its response to a deadly North Korean artillery strike.
In scenes reminiscent of the Korean War 60 years ago, dazed residents of Yeonpyeong island foraged through blackened rubble Thursday for pieces of their lives and lugged their possessions down eerily deserted streets strewn with bent metal after Tuesday’s hail of artillery. The barrage darkened skies, set off fierce blazes, killed four South Koreans and raised fears of an escalation that could lead to full-scale war.
"It was a sea of fire," resident Lee In-ku said, recalling the flames that rolled through the streets of this island that is home to military bases as well as a fishing community famous for its catches of crab. The spit of land is just seven miles (11 kilometers) from North Korea, but had only six pieces of artillery.
Despite warnings from North Korea that any new provocation would be met with more attacks, Washington and Seoul pushed ahead with plans for military drills starting Sunday involving a nuclear-powered U.S. aircraft carrier in waters south of this week’s skirmish.
The exercises will likely anger the North — the regime cited South Korean drills this week as the impetus behind its attack — but the president said the South could little 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."
Washington and Seoul also ratcheted up pressure on China, North Korea’s main ally and biggest benefactor, to restrain Pyongyang.
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.
The heightened inter-Korean animosity is taking place as North Korea 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.
On Thursday, Lee accepted his defense minister’s offer to resign after lawmakers lashed out at the government, claiming officials were unprepared for Tuesday’s attack and that the military response was too slow. Even those in Lee’s ruling party demanded the dismissal of Defense Minister Kim Tae-young.
At an emergency meeting in Seoul, Lee ordered reinforcements for about 4,000 troops on tense Yellow Sea islands, top-level weaponry and upgraded rules of engagement that would create a new category of response when civilian areas are targeted.
Skirmishes between the Korean militaries are not uncommon, but North Korea’s heavy bombardment of Yeonpyeong Island was the first naval skirmish since the Korean War to kill civilians.
South Korean troops returned fire and scrambled fighter jets in response, but two South Korean marines and two construction workers were killed and at least 18 others wounded. South Korea has said casualties on the North Korean side were likely significant, but none were immediately reported by the secretive regime.
Marine Lt. Col. Joo Jong-wha acknowledged that the island is acutely short of artillery, saying it has only six pieces: the howitzers used in Tuesday’s skirmish.
"In artillery, you’re supposed to move on after firing to mask your location so that they don’t strike right back at you," he told reporters. "But we have too few artillery."
On Yeonpyeong, some spoke of walls of flame, surreal images of blackened skies, massive dust clouds, orange-colored lightning.
"My town was almost burned out," said Noh Myung-san, 56, who was planting trees near a mountain when he heard artillery explosions. "I thought it was an earthquake."
Islanders walked gingerly over potholes and past electric poles pockmarked by artillery shells. Blackened beer bottles lay outside what’s left of a supermarket. Coast guard officers patrolled the streets in pairs, passing deserted restaurants, offices and schools.
Cha In-soon, a 55-year-old who runs a coffee shop, was in tears as she pulled a trolley loaded with boxes of grapes. "I lost everything."
Shin Sung-nam, 70, said the attack was worse than anything he’d experienced during the Korean War.
His 17-year-old grandson, Lee Sung-won, said he was taking an exam when the barrage started.
"I just saw something black was coming from the sky and hit the ground," he said.
On the streets of Seoul, people drew comparisons between the attack and the war of the 1950s.
"This is scarier than the Korean War," said Kim Hak-won, 74. "This is the first time I saw a village devastated by bomb shells."
Though North Korea regularly threatens to rain munitions down on its rival, the two Koreas are required to abide by an armistice signed in 1953 at the end of their bitter 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. However, the most costly incident was the sinking of a South Korean warship eight months ago that killed 46 sailors in the worst attack on South Korea’s military since the war.
The defense minister also offered to resign following that incident, but the president refused.
Seoul resident Cheong Hyung-yong, 77, said this time the government reacted with too little, too late.
"If only I was young, if only I could fight against the North Koreans," he said. "I wish I could punish the North Koreans right now."