Pyongyang Fires On South Korean Island

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In a major escalation of tensions, North Korea fired dozens of artillery shells at a South Korean island, killing at least two and sending residents to bomb shelters. The hostile action came shortly after North Korea unveiled a secret new nuclear facility. But it remained unclear why the North fired.

MARY LOUISE KELLY, host:

From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Mary Louise Kelly.

MELISSA BLOCK, host:

And I'm Melissa Block.

The U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon is describing it as the worst attack in Korea since the end of the Korean War. Earlier today, the North fired on an island off South Korea's west coast. The South returned fire. When it was over, two South Korean marines were dead. More than a dozen others, both marines and civilians, were wounded.

Reporting from Seoul, here's Doualy Xaykaothao.

DOUALY XAYKAOTHAO: It was a beautiful sunny day that suddenly turned dark and frightening for more than 1,500 villagers on Yeongpyeong Island. On the mainland, South Koreans were glued to their television sets, staring at clouds of smoke rising from the island and listening to the sound of artillery captured on video cameras.

(Soundbite of artillery)

(Soundbite of broadcast)

Unidentified Man #1: (Speaking Korean)

XAYKAOTHAO: Local television network KBS interviewed some of the people escaping from the island.

(Soundbite of broadcast)

Unidentified Man #2: (Speaking Korean)

XAYKAOTHAO: It's a sea of fire, this man says. The hills are on fire, the villages and houses are burning and bombs are still falling.

Unindentified Woman: (Speaking Korean)

XAYKAOTHAO: This woman describes how her house exploded in flames. She ran outside and got on her stomach. There were fires and explosions all around, she says. Others coming off a boat onto the mainland described the scene on the island as pure mayhem. Many parents were seen carrying their tired children away to safety.

Kim Tae-Woo at the Korea Institute for Defense Analysis says this is a very dangerous time, because he says the North's attack was well planned.

Mr. KIM TAE-WOO (Korea Institute for Defense Analysis): And, also, the shelling was quite indiscriminate, hurting some civilians. I would call this a small war.

XAYKAOTHAO: A small war, Kim says, and one that may be linked to the likely next leader of North Korea, Kim Jong-Un, the 20-something-year-old son of current leader Kim Jong-Il. The younger Kim was introduced to the world and to North Koreans only last month.

Mr. TAE-WOO: From the moment the he was decided as the power successor, here in South Korea, security experts like me expected more tension between two Koreas. And, also, North Korea will have more reasons to stick to the nuclear weapons.

XAYKAOTHAO: Professor Yu Ho-Yeol at Korea University's North Korean Studies Department says the attack by North Korea surprised him.

Professor YU HO-YEOL (Korea University): We actually expected that North Korea would be more cooperative approach to South Korea and therefore they need stability in the Korean Peninsula and they also need to get economic assistance from China, as well as from South Korea. But surprisingly, they responded to a more hawkish approach towards South Korea.

President LEE MYUNG-BAK (South Korea): (Speaking Korean)

XAYKAOTHAO: President Lee Myung-bak, speaking after he met with his cabinet in an underground bunker, told local media that his military is ready for any further provocation from the North, saying the army, the navy and the air force can retaliate against the North's provocation with firepower many times stronger than the North's.

But North Korea is already threatening more attacks and warning against South Korea violating its territorial waters off the Korean Peninsula's west coast.

(Soundbite of news broadcast)

Unidentified Man #3: (Speaking Korean)

XAYKAOTHAO: This North Korean news announcer on Pyongyang state television says, quote, "should the South Korean puppet group dare intrude into the North's waters, the revolutionary armed forces of the North will unhesitatingly continue taking merciless military counteractions against it.

South Korea is now at its highest peacetime alert level, and to avoid more casualties, the military is evacuating as many people as possible from islands near Yeongpyeong.

For NPR News, I'm Duoaly Xaykaothao in Seoul.

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