North Korea shells South in fiercest attack in decades

November 23, 2010

By Jack Kim and Lee Jae-won

(Reuters) - North Korea on Tuesday fired dozens of artillery shells at a South Korean island, killing two soldiers and setting houses ablaze, in one of the heaviest attacks on its neighbor since the Korean War ended in 1953.

The attack, with South Korea returning fire came as the reclusive state has been pressing regional powers to return to negotiations about its nuclear weapons program, and it follows revelations at the weekend that Pyongyang is fast developing another source of material to make atomic bombs.

It also follows moves by iron leader Kim Jong-il to make his youngest son heir apparent to the family dynasty.

Experts say that for decades the Korean leadership has played a carefully calibrated game of provocations to win concessions from the international community and impress his own military. The risk is that the leadership transition has upset this balance and that events spin out of control.

South Korean President Lee Myung-bak, who has pursued a hard line with the reclusive North since taking office nearly three years ago, said a response had to be firm following the attack on Yeonpyeong island, just 120 km (75 miles) west of Seoul.

The two Koreas are still technically at war — the Korean War ended only with a truce — and tension rose sharply early this year after Seoul accused the North of torpedoing one of its navy vessels, killing 46 sailors.

“Houses and mountains are on fire and people are evacuating. You can’t see very well because of plumes of smoke,” a witness on the island told YTN Television before the shelling ended after about an hour.

News of the attack rattled global markets, already unsettled by Ireland’s debt woes and shifting to less risky assets.

North Korea said its wealthy neighbor started the fight.

“Despite our repeated warnings, South Korea fired dozens of shells from 1 p.m. … and we’ve taken strong military action immediately,” its KCNA news agency said in a brief statement.

South Korea has been conducting military exercises this week but it was not clear whether there had been any drills near the island that could have triggered the incident.

Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said the latest rise in tension represented a “colossal danger.”

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