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North Korea’s Shelling of South Korean Island Heightens Tensions

In this image provided by a local resident, smoke rises from South Korea’s Yeonpyeong Island near the border with North Korea on Tuesday.

South Korean President Lee Myung-bak has ordered retaliatory strikes if there is “further provocation” from North Korea. The military has been placed in a “crisis status” in response to Tuesday’s artillery exchange. President Lee has been meeting with senior officials at the Blue House in Seoul to address the possibility of a military escalation.

South Korea said two of its marines were killed after North Korea unleashed a barrage of artillery on Yeonpyeong Island, near the tension-filled border. Most of the artillery hit a military base, but several homes were burned down and there were reports of both military and civilian injuries. North Korea denies it provoked the incident, which lasted about an hour.

The island, near the border, has been the site of past naval skirmishes. This incident comes during a time of heightened insecurity as the outside world looks for clues about the succession of Kim Jong-il’s son, Kim Jong-un. The sinking of the South Korean warship Cheonan in March, which killed 46 sailors, set off a round of angry rhetoric, but South Korea recently considered dropping its demand for an apology as a condition for the six-party nuclear disarmament talks.

The two Koreas never formally signed a peace treaty when the war ended in 1953.

White House Press Secretary Robert Gibbs reiterated that the United States, which has long had its troops stationed in the country, is “firmly committed” to South Korean defense. The U.S. Navy has about 50 vessels in the area but showed no signs of further military buildup.

President Obama is expected to call President Lee to discuss the incident

China, which is North Korea’s main benefactor and has previously responded to tensions with relatively muted rhetoric, expressed “concern” over the exchange, calling for a resumption of six-party talks.

Japan’s government was on high alert as Prime Minister Naoto Kan convened his cabinet for emergency meeting. Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov called the possibility of further intensification a “colossal danger.”

The altercation comes on the heels of the discovery of a new light-water reactor facility, which has raised concerns about attempts to boost the country’s nuclear weapons capability. North Korea claims it would be used for providing electricity.

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