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Asia-pacific

North and South exchange fire as tension spikes

Video by Gaëlle Faure

Text by FRANCE 24

Latest update : 2010-11-23

The Korean peninsula is on high alert after an exchange of artillery fire between North and South on Tuesday. Pyongyang shelled an island near a disputed sea border, killing two South Korean soldiers and forcing the local population to evacuate.

The Korean peninsula is on high alert after an exchange of artillery fire between North and South erupted on Tuesday. Following South Korean military exercises near a disputed sea border, Pyongyang fired artillery shells at an island located in the contested area, killing two South Korean soldiers and forcing the local population to evacuate.

“It’s a very, very serious escalation,” Seoul-based reporter Andrew Salmon told FRANCE 24.

The incident is one of the most serious border skirmishes since the 1950-1953 war and prompted South Korea to warn that it would “sternly retaliate” in the event of any further provocation as the government met for emergency talks in an underground war room.

The latest outbreak of hostilities was met with condemnation by world powers, with the United States demanding that North Korea "halt its belligerent action" while Russia warned of the "colossal danger" of a military escalation on the peninsula and the United Nations urged both sides to show "restraint". China urged the resumption of stalled six-party talks aimed at dismantling North Korea's suspected nuclear weapons programme.

The exchange of fire came in the wake of a US scientist's disclosure on Sunday that North Korea has a uranium enrichment programme far more advanced than originally thought, a revelation that has set off red flags for the US and its allies.

US special envoy to North Korea Stephen Bosworth travelled to China on Tuesday after a visit to Seoul to try to drum up renewed support for curbing the North’s nuclear activities in light of the new evidence.

The ‘North Korean trap’

“North Korea wants to open a new chapter of tension with Seoul but also with the US,” said Sebastien Falletti, FRANCE 24 correspondent in South Korea.

But the most pressing question remained how the South would handle the latest spike in tension. According to Faletti, the challenge posed to South Korea is “not to fall into the North Korean trap”. He explained that South Korea would have to “show its strength, but at the same time avoid any escalation that could lead to a wider conflict”.

Roughly 50 shells landed on Tuesday on the South Korean border island of Yeonpyeong near the Yellow Sea border, damaging dozens of houses and sending dense clouds of smoke into the air, local media reported. Two South Korean marines from a contingent stationed on the island were killed and 13 other marines were wounded, according to the military.

Military sources also said that the South and North fired at each other intermittently for over an hour after the initial shelling.

The incident began after the North sent messages of protest against the South Korean military exercises taking place near the border, the South Korean government said.

The South Korean military has said it was conducting test firing before the exchange, but that the fire was aimed westward and not toward North Korea.

Yeonpyeong is located south of the border established by the United Nations after the war, but north of the sea border declared by Pyongyang.

Tensions between the two Koreas have been especially high since the sinking of a South Korean warship in March, which the South has said was caused by a North Korean torpedo attack. Pyongyang has denied the charge.

The firing also comes after Kim Jong-Un, the youngest son of ailing North Korean leader Kim Jong-Il, was officially named his father's eventual successor.

Date created : 2010-11-23

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