World powers agonised over how to deal with the volatile and nuclear-armed communist regime over its attack on a Yellow Sea island, in what one veteran North Korea watcher labelled a diplomatic “problem from hell”.
Isolated North Korea charged in a statement that “the US can never evade responsibility for the recent exchange of fire”, which saw four people killed when Pyongyang’s forces shelled the island in disputed waters on Tuesday.
“If the warmongering South Korean puppets fail to return to their senses and commit another reckless military provocation, our army will carry out second and third rounds of powerful physical retaliatory strikes without hesitation.”
The warning came as the US and South Korean navies plan to hold a four-day naval exercise in the Yellow Sea from Sunday that will involve a strike group headed by aircraft carrier the USS George Washington.
Although the show of allied maritime firepower had been scheduled well before this week’s attacks, the US military said, it would also demonstrate the US “commitment to regional stability through deterrence”.
South Korea also said Thursday it would “sharply increase military forces, including ground troops, on the five islands in the Yellow Sea and allocate more of its budget toward dealing with North Korea’s asymmetrical threats”.
Enraged by the first shelling of its civilians since the 1950-53 Korean War, South Korea was still counting the cost of the attack on Yeonpyeong island, which lies near the tense post-war sea demarcation line.
The explosions that shattered the calm of the remote islet killed two marines and two civilians, wounded 18 others, left 22 buildings in charred ruins and sent hundreds of terrified residents fleeing to the mainland.
Newspapers have called for revenge against the “mad dog” regime, protesters have burnt North Korea’s flag, and some politicians have berated President Lee Myung-Bak for not responding forcefully enough when the South returned fire.
US President Barack Obama has pledged to stand “shoulder to shoulder” with ally South Korea, where 28,500 American troops are stationed, facing off across a Cold War era frontier against the regime run by “Dear Leader” Kim Jong-Il.
The world has often been baffled by the regime ruling impoverished North Korea, which has staged two nuclear tests, fired missiles over Japan and this month showed off to a US academic a modern new nuclear facility.
Many observers believe Tuesday’s attack was meant to highlight the military credentials of the leader-in-waiting — Kim’s little-known 27-year-old son Kim Jong-Un, who two months ago took a key military post.
The opaque nature of the regime, and its history of brinkmanship, has left world powers at a loss at how to deal with Pyongyang — a problem vastly compounded by divisions within the international community.
North Korea has also rejected a proposal by the US-led United Nations Command, which supervises the armistice, to hold military talks on the attack, Yonhap news agency reported citing a South Korean defence official.
While the US, European powers, South Korea and Japan have long pushed hard to sanction the regime, China and Russia have favoured a softer line with Pyongyang, a Cold War era ally and neighbour to both.
When an intergovernmental expert panel found that a North Korean submarine in March torpedoed and sank a South Korean corvette the Cheonan, killing all 46 sailor aboard, China refused to blame the Pyongyang regime.
Premier Wen Jiabao said in Moscow that “China is firmly committed to maintaining the peace and stability of the Korean peninsula and opposes any provocative military acts”.
It was not clear whether Wen was referring to the North Korean shelling or to the planned US-South Korean military exercises. Beijing has bitterly opposed similar war games there in the past.
North Korea expert Peter Beck, with the US think tank the Council on Foreign Relations, said: “In the wake of the Cheonan sinking, Beijing showed us that they are more than willing to put up with Pyongyang’s worst behaviour.”
“Given that this incident brings us closer to the brink of war than the Cheonan, Beijing might conclude that enough is enough and quietly put their foot down, but I am not holding my breath.”