China weighed in too, with its Foreign Ministry voicing its first official protest against U.S.-South Korean military exercises, set to begin Sunday. But the ministry statement was more muted than past ones, revealing that Beijing may be seeking to tamp down tensions on all sides. Washington and Seoul have been pushing China to wield its influence with Pyongyang to get it to back down.
The sounds of bombardment sent civilians on Yeonpyeong Island running for cover today, but no shells landed on the island, and it appears the booms were part of a North Korean naval drill out at sea. Still, the firing frayed nerves, while the top U.S. military commander in South Korea, Gen. Walter Sharp, toured the island and surveyed damage from Tuesday's artillery barrage that killed four people, two South Korean marines and two civilians.
While naval skirmishes have been somewhat frequent along the Koreas' disputed sea border, Tuesday's bombardment was the first time since the 1950-53 Korean War that civilians have been targeted. Dozens of homes and huge swaths of forest were incinerated in the hour-long attack.
Sharp's visit is part of U.S. efforts to bolster its ally Seoul ahead of a four-day joint military exercise between U.S. and South Korean forces that begins Sunday. The USS George Washington, one of the largest aircraft carriers in the world, is speeding toward the Yellow Sea in order to take part.
U.S. military officials said Sharp didn't hear today's artillery blasts, which occurred within view of Yeonpyeong Island, off its opposite coast. It's unclear whether Pyongyang was aware Sharp was on the island at the time, and whether the blasts were intended as a defiant warning about Sunday's drills.
Pyongyang's state media carried a report today calling the upcoming military exercises "the reckless plan of those trigger-happy elements to stage war exercises targeted against" the North. "The situation on the Korean peninsula is inching closer to the brink of war," said the report, excerpted by The New York Times.
The report also claimed responsibility for Tuesday's attack, saying North Korean forces "precisely targeted and struck" South Korean artillery units. And it warned that Pyongyang's military is "ready to annihilate enemies' stronghold," according to The Guardian.
China's Foreign Ministry also issued a statement today referring to the upcoming U.S.-South Korean drills. "We oppose any party to take any military actions in our exclusive economic zone without permission," it said, according to The Wall Street Journal. China uses the term "economic zone" to refer generally to waters within 200 nautical miles of its coastline.
American and South Korean officials haven't said where this weekend's drills will be held. But back in July, China protested previous U.S.-South Korean military exercises, declaring the whole Yellow Sea off-limits. Under such pressure, American officials moved those drills to the Sea of Japan, away from China's coast and east of South Korea, the Journal reported.
South Korean President Lee Myung-bak appointed his security adviser and a career military man, Lee Hee-won, as the new defense minister today, The Washington Post reported.
But criticism of Seoul's handling of the bombardment continues, as hundreds of South Korean veterans staged a protest today in the border town of Paju, accusing the government of being too weak.
"The lazy government's policies towards North Korea are too soft," Kim Byeong-su, president of an association of ex-marines, told The Guardian. "It needs to take revenge on a bunch of mad dogs. We need to show them South Korea is not to be played with."