SEONGNAM, South Korea — Dignitaries placed white chrysanthemums on a funeral altar Saturday as South Korea honored two marines killed in a North Korean artillery attack that was one of the worst bombardments of its territory since the 1950-53 Korean War.
The South Korean marines commander vowed unspecified "thousand-fold" retaliation at the funeral, as the country geared up for joint military maneuvers with the U.S. starting Sunday that are likely to keep tensions soaring following the attack on a South Korean island — which also killed two civilians.
North Korea issued new warnings Saturday against the Yellow Sea war games, calling them an "unpardonable provocation" and warning of retaliatory attacks that would "turn the stronghold of enemies into a sea of fire" if its own territory is violated.
The comments ran on the state-run Uriminzokkiri website, and came a day after the North’s warnings that the peninsula was on the "brink of war."
China, under pressure from the U.S. and South Korea to rein in its ally Pyongyang, urged both sides to show restraint while Washington played down the belligerent rhetoric, noting that the weekend war games were routine and planned well before last week’s attack.
"The pressing task now is to put the situation under control and prevent a recurrence of similar incidents," Chinese Foreign Minister Yang Jiechi told U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton by phone Friday, according to the ministry’s website.
The North’s strike Tuesday destroyed large parts of Yeonpyeong Island in a major escalation of their sporadic skirmishes along the disputed sea border. The attack — eight months after a torpedo sank a South Korean warship, killing 46 sailors — has laid bare Seoul’s weaknesses in defense 60 years after the Korean War.
South Korea’s government has struggled to recoup from the surprise attacks, replacing the defense minister on Friday.
A dispatch Friday from Chinese state media saying Beijing’s foreign minister had met the North Korean ambassador appeared to be an effort to trumpet China’s role as a responsible actor and placate the U.S. and the South.
"The Chinese government is trying to send Pyongyang a signal that if they continue to be so provocative, China will just leave the North Koreans to themselves," said Zhu Feng, director of Peking University’s Center for International and Strategic Studies.
In Seongnam, near Seoul, about 600 mourners including South Korea’s Prime Minister Kim Hwang-sik and the marine commander Maj. Gen. You Nak-jun attended the funeral for the two marines at a packed gymnasium in a military hospital as somber music played.
Dignitaries and family members placed chrysanthemums — a traditional flower of mourning in South Korea — before framed photographs of the two victims, who were posthumously promoted by one rank and awarded a medal.
"Our marine corps ... will carry out a hundred- or thousand-fold," retaliation against North Korea for launching Tuesday’s attack, You said, without elaborating.
The Pentagon played down any notion that the weekend maneuvers with South Korea were a provocation.
"We have exercised there regularly," said Capt. Darryn James, a Defense Department spokesman in Washington said Friday. "And all of these exercises are in international waters."
President Lee Myung-bak has ordered reinforcements for the 4,000 troops on Yeonpyeong and four other Yellow Sea islands, as well as top-level weaponry and upgraded rules of engagement.
The heightened animosity between the Koreas comes 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.
North Korea does not recognize the maritime border drawn by the U.N. in 1953, and considers the waters around Yeonpyeong Island its territory. The island is home to South Korean military bases as well as a civilian population of about 1,300 people, and lies only seven miles (11 kilometers) from North Korean shores.