North Korea warns of 'brink of war'
Seoul - North Korea warned on Friday that planned US-South Korean military drills are pushing the peninsula to the brink of war, as a US military commander headed to an island devastated this week by a North Korean artillery barrage.
North Korea's state news agency said drills this weekend involving South Korean forces and a US nuclear powered supercarrier in waters south of Tuesday's skirmish between the rival Koreas are a reckless plan by "trigger-happy elements" and that the manoeuvres target the North.
"The situation on the Korean peninsula is inching closer to the brink of war," the dispatch from the Korean Central News Agency said.
The comments came ahead of a planned visit on Friday by General Walter Sharp, the US military commander in South Korea, to the island targeted by the North Korean attack to show solidarity with ally Seoul.
Four South Koreans - two marines and two civilians - were killed in the hour-long skirmish on Tuesday after North Korea unleashed a hail of artillery on the Yeonpyeong, but the island was quiet on Friday morning, with most residents having evacuated to the mainland.
Marines with M-16 rifles patrolled a seawall, while others gazed toward North Korea from a guard post on a cliff. Technicians worked to restore communication lines. Several stray dogs growled near destroyed houses.
The heightened animosity between the Koreas is taking place as the North undergoes a delicate transition of power from leader Kim Jong Il to his son Kim Jong Un, who is in his late 20s and is expected to eventually succeed his ailing father.
South Korean President Lee Myung-bak has ordered reinforcements for about 4 000 troops on Yeonpyeong and four other Yellow Sea islands, as well as top-level weaponry for the soldiers and upgraded rules of engagement that would create a new category of response when civilian areas are targeted.
He also sacked his defence minister amid intense criticism over lapses in the country's response to the attack.
In scenes reminiscent of the Korean War 60 years ago, dazed residents of Yeonpyeong island this week foraged through blackened rubble for pieces of their lives and lugged their possessions down eerily deserted streets strewn with bent metal.
"It was a sea of fire," resident Lee In-ku said on Thursday, recalling the flames that rolled through the streets of this island that is home to military bases as well as a fishing community famous for its catches of crab. The spit of land had only six pieces of artillery.
Pressure on China
North Korea blamed South Korean drills this week as the motivation behind its attack - but Lee said the South could not afford to abandon such preparation now.
"We should not ease our sense of crisis in preparation for the possibility of another provocation by North Korea," spokesperson Hong Sang-pyo quoted President Lee Myung-bak as saying. "A provocation like this can recur any time."
Washington and Seoul also ratcheted up pressure on China, North Korea's main ally and biggest benefactor, to restrain Pyongyang.
Without criticising the North, Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao responded by calling on all sides to show "maximum restraint" and pushed again to restart the six-nation talks aimed at persuading North Korea to dismantle its nuclear programmes in exchange for aid. Foreign Minister Yang Jiechi, meanwhile, cancelled a trip to Seoul this week.