Nuclear-armed North Korea fired artillery shells into South Korea on
Tuesday, killing two marines and injuring civilians, and
setting off widespread alarm in one of the worst attacks since the
The attack drew worldwide condemnation, including from U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki Moon, and placed South Korea on high military alert.
South Korean troops retaliated with cannon fire and sent jet fighters to the area, close to a disputed maritime border on the west of the divided Korean peninsula and the scene of deadly clashes between the two rivals in the past.
Seoul warned North Korea of "enormous retaliation" if it took more aggressive steps.
South Korean President Lee Myung-Bak's government met in an underground war room in response to what it called an atrocity against civilians.
Three civilians and 17 South Korean soldiers were wounded in the attack on Yeonpyeong Island, just 120 km (75 miles) west of Seoul.
News of the attack shook financial markets across the globe, already unsettled by Ireland's debt woes.
North Korea's supreme command, however, accused South Korea of firing first and vowed "merciless military attacks with no hesitation if the South Korean enemy dares to invade our sea territory..."
South Korea was conducting military drills in the area at the time but said it had not been firing at the North.
Technically at war
Washington said it was too early to consider any military response
to the North Korean strike but said it was "firmly committed to the defense" of
"At this point it's premature to say that we're considering any action," Pentagon spokesman Colonel Dave Lapan told reporters.
President Barack Obama was awakened before dawn with the news and the White House demanded Pyongyang respect an Armistice agreement that ended the 1950-53 Korean war.
Obama is to speak by telephone with President Lee, as U.S. and South Korean defense chiefs agreed to "coordinate" any response to the attack.
U.S. envoy on North Korea Stephen Bosworth, who was in Beijing, said the United States and China agreed on the need for restraint, after he discussed the incident with Chinese officials.
China—North Korea's sole major ally and source of economic aid—also called for the resumption of stalled six-nation talks aimed at dismantling Pyongyang's nuclear drive.
The North Korean assault came amid tensions over Pyongyang's claim that it has a new uranium enrichment facility and just six weeks after North Korean leader Kim Jong Il unveiled his youngest son, Kim Jong Un, as his heir apparent.
Washington had said it was studying the evidence a group of visiting American scientists used to conclude the North was building the enrichment facility, which presumably could be used to produce fuel for nuclear weapons.
Inter-Korean talks shelved
Yeonpyeong lies just south of the border established by U.N. forces after the war, but north of the sea border claimed by Pyongyang.
Inter-Korean talks scheduled for Thursday, aimed at arranging further reunions of families separated by the war, were shelved, Seoul's unification ministry said.
Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov warned of "colossal danger" from the new Korean tensions.
"This could degenerate into military actions," he said.
Japanese Prime Minister Naoto Kan ordered his government to prepare for any eventuality.
Reported by Radio Free Asia's Korean Service with contributions from news agencies. Written by Parameswaran Ponnudurai.