23rd November, 2010
South Korea says it has returned fire after North Korea fired around 200 artilleryÂ shells at one of its border islands, reportedly killing one marine.
The South’s military was placed on its highest non-wartime alert after the shellsÂ landed on Yeonpyeong island.
North Korea has not yet commented on the incident, in which three marines and twoÂ civilians were also injured.
Analysts say this is one of the most serious clashes since the Korean War endedÂ without a peace treaty in 1953.
There have been occasional cross-border clashes since, but the latest incident comesÂ at a time of rising regional tension.
North Korea’s reclusive leader, Kim Jong-il, is believed to be ill and trying toÂ engineer the succession of his youngest son. And on Saturday, North Korea showed offÂ what it claimed was a new uranium enrichment facility – potentially giving it aÂ second route to a nuclear weapon.
The move prompted the US special representative for North Korea, Stephen Bosworth,Â to rule out the resumption of six-party talks on resolving the nuclear issue.
South Korean presidential spokesman, Kim Hee-jung, also said it was investigating aÂ possible link between the artillery attack and a major military exercise near theÂ western sea border which began on Monday.
It also comes just over a month after North Korean leader, Kim Jong-il’s youngestÂ son, Kim Jong-un, was appointed to senior political and military posts, fuellingÂ speculation that he was being prepared to succeed him.
A spokesman for South Korea’s Joint Chiefs of Staff said North Korean shells hadÂ started falling in the waters off the island of Yeonpyeong at 1434 (0534 GMT). SomeÂ later landed directly on the island.
A resident on the island, where between 1,200 and 1,300 people live, told the AFPÂ news agency that dozens of houses were damaged, while television pictures showedÂ plumes of smoke rising above the island.
“Houses and mountains are on fire and people are evacuating. You can’t see very wellÂ because of plumes of smoke,” a witness on the island told YTN television station.
“People are frightened to death.”
The military said one marine was killed and three others were injured, according toÂ South Korea’s YTN television. Two civilians were also hurt.
The South Korean military has also deployed fighter jets to Yeonpyeong, lies nearÂ the disputed inter-Korean maritime border, about 100km (60 miles) west of the KoreanÂ Peninsula.
However, President Lee Myung-bak urged officials attending an emergency cabinetÂ meeting to try to prevent any further escalation.
A spokesman for the Chinese foreign ministry said that both countries should “doÂ more to contribute to peace.”
“What’s imperative now is to restart six-party talks as soon as possible,” Hong LeiÂ told a news conference in Beijing.
The impact has already been felt on financial markets, with both the Korean won andÂ the Japanese yen falling in value.
This western maritime border, also known as the Northern Limit Line, has been theÂ scene of numerous clashes in the past.
In March, a South Korean warship went down near the border with the loss of 46Â lives. International investigators say a North Korean torpedo sank the ship,Â although Pyongyang has denied any role in the incident.
Since then relations between the two neighbours have remained tense.