North Korea Fires Artillery At South Korean Island

South Korea says it scrambled F-16 fighter jets and returned fire after North Korea shot dozens of rounds of artillery onto a populated South Korean island. South Korea's president held an emergency meeting at an underground bunker in Seoul.

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RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

And I'm Renee Montagne.

Tensions between the two Koreas have escalated dangerously, after North Korea unleashed a barrage of artillery rounds onto a South Korean island, wounding South Korean marines and killing at least two. Smoke began rising from fires on the island, as South Korea quickly returned the artillery fire.

Doualy Xaykaothao is in Seoul and has been monitoring events.

Doualy, exactly what happened? And there are also civilians on that island, right?

DOUALY XAYKAOTHAO: That's right. Essentially, the firing took place on Yongpyong Island, off the Korean peninsula's west coast. And right now, emergency officials are saying the island is burning with severe damage all over the place. The local Yonhap News Agency has been broadcasting images of multiple plumes of fire. They almost look like mini volcanoes erupting.

A military official said the island was hit by at least 50 artillery shells. And local media is broadcasting terrible screams and shouts of people just scared and running. And some of them, essentially running to local radio stations and television stations, to tell them about what's happening there. It's obviously a shock for everyone; women and children, fishermen who were out in their boats.

A spokesman for the South's Joint Chiefs of Staff said South Korea fired back about 80 rounds. And during the exchange of fire, soldiers and civilians were injured. Right now, it looks like all 1600 residents have been evacuated to shelters.

MONTAGNE: And South Korea's president held an emergency meeting at an underground bunker in Seoul, just hours ago. What is he saying about this exchange of fire?

XAYKAOTHAO: President Lee Myung-bak went into the emergency meeting saying he wanted to carefully prevent the exchange of fire from escalating. But during the hour and a half of talks, he ordered his cabinet and top security officials to deal resolutely with the attacks, saying any response must be strong.

A presidential spokesman, in a televised briefing after the meeting, said the president warns stern retaliation against Pyongyang, and that he sees this incident as a clear military provocation.

Now, when Lee came into office two years ago, he vowed to deal with North Korea different from previous administrations, ending the decade of Sunshine Policy of engagement with North Korea; essentially turning things into what some say is a conservative policy towards the North - basically not giving North Korea incentives until they start to abandon their nuclear programs.

A North Korean analyst told me a military conflict between the two Koreas was just a matter of time, especially since leader Kim Jong-il appointed his youngest son as future heir, for a military regime. This one analyst said a military success is exactly what the son needs to secure his future as the next North Korean leader.

MONTAGNE: Do we have any idea of what prompted this attack on this island at this time?

XAYKAOTHAO: There is some talk about this being linked to a new report about North Korea claiming that it has a new, modern uranium enrichment facility. This was apparently revealed by a Stanford nuclear scientist over the weekend. But even he said, when he was touring this facility, that he wasn't able to confirm whether this laboratory was in operation or not.

If it is true, then yes, it's very serious. And it means that North Korea can easily convert this facility and start to make materials for nuclear bombs.

But actually what we are hearing right now is that South Korea's navy was conducting a training exercise near the western sea border with North Korea. And the - North Korea had sent a letter to protest this training earlier. The North has warned, previously, that it considers military drills near its border as an act of war.

Now, this sea border where the exchange of fire took place is the site of previous naval clashes; two deadly ones in 1999 and another in 2002. But keep in mind, the South still accuses the North of sinking a South Korean warship this past March, killing 46 South Korean sailors.

MONTAGNE: Doualy, thanks very much.

XAYKAOTHAO: You're welcome.

MONTAGNE: That's reporter Doualy Xaykaothao speaking to us from Seoul, South Korea.

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