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(LEAD) Seoul announces halt of aid to N. Korea, firepower buildup, military drills

All Headlines 17:13 November 24, 2010

(ATTN: UPDATES with Lee-Obama talks in paras 1-9)

SEOUL, Nov. 24 (Yonhap) -- South Korea on Wednesday halted aid to North Korea, vowed to bolster firepower and promised harsher retaliation against future provocations as U.S. President Barack Obama urged China to get tough with Pyongyang over the regime's deadly bombing of a southern island.

Anger deepened in South Korea over the North's indiscriminate bombing of Yeonpyeong Island near the maritime border with the communist nation as two civilians were found dead Wednesday afternoon, the first civilian deaths recorded in the attack.

That brought the number of deaths in Tuesday's attack to four, including two marines.

Obama spoke by phone with South Korean President Lee Myung-bak, reaffirming Washington's security commitment to Seoul. The two leaders condemned the attack as a premeditated provocation, Lee's office said.

In particular, Obama called for China's cooperation in handling North Korea, Lee's office said.

Beijing is considered to have the largest leverage over North Korea as the main provider of food and energy aid as well as diplomatic support. But China has been reluctant to put its influence to use amid concern that instability in the neighboring nation could hurt Chinese economic growth.

"The United States stands shoulder-to-shoulder with our close friend and ally" South Korea, Obama told Lee, according to a White House statement. The U.S. will "work with the international community to strongly condemn this outrageous action by North Korea," it said.

Lee and Obama also agreed to conduct joint military exercises in the Yellow Sea.

The American military in Seoul said the four-day drills, set to begin on Sunday, will involve the aircraft carrier USS George Washington, a show of force designed to deter the belligerent regime and warn against further provocations.

The shocking daylight attack, which also left 18 others wounded, marked the first time North Korea has shelled South Korean soil and civilian areas since the 1950-53 Korean War. Pyongyang's provocations had so far been limited to maritime skirmishes or gunfights across their heavily armed border.

North Korea claimed the South fired first and has warned of further attacks.

On the devastated island, firefighters and residents battled a wildfire triggered by the bombing as hundreds of the island's elderly people and children were still taking refuge at air-raid shelters. Hundreds others fled the island on Coast Guard and Navy vessels.

The indiscriminate shelling destroyed nearly 70 percent of forests and fields on the rural island. Five homes were hit by the shells, and 17 others were destroyed by fire. Emergency food and water were being shipped to the island while marine soldiers and communication engineers were deployed to help recover destroyed facilities.

The U.S.-led United Nations Command (UNC) proposed general-level talks with North Korea to discuss the attack. Gen. Walter Sharp, who commands both the UNC and some 28,500 U.S. troops in South Korea, urged the North "stop these unprovoked attacks and fully abide by the terms of the armistice agreement."

South Korea has suspended the shipment of flood aid to North Korea.

Unification Ministry spokesman Chun Hae-sung said in a briefing that 5,000 tons of rice, 3 million packs of instant noodles and 3,000 tons of cement have been sent to the North Korean town of Sinuiju, which borders China, as of Wednesday.

But 7,000 tons of cement has yet to be delivered, Chun said, adding that medical supply aid worth 580 million won (US$500,000) will also be halted from being sent to the North.

Defense Minister Kim Tae-young reported to the National Assembly that North Korea fired about 170 rounds of artillery Tuesday, with 80 of them landing on the island and the others in nearby waters. Kim pledged to "respond resolutely" if North Korea resumes shelling or makes any further provocations.

The attack came as North Korea has been ratcheting up tensions over its nuclear ambitions by disclosing a uranium enrichment facility to an American nuclear scientist earlier this month. Highly enriched uranium can be used to make atomic bombs that are easier to detonate than weapons based on plutonium.

It also came as the totalitarian nation has been trying to pave the way for Kim Jong-un, the youngest son of leader Kim Jong-il, to take over as leader of the family dynasty after unveiling him as heir-apparent in late September.

The defense chief said the bombardment could be a political move to help build credentials for the son.

"Our judgment is that North Korea carried out the attack to consolidate the succession process in the country by showing off the leadership of Kim Jong-un," Minister Kim told lawmakers. "After revealing the new uranium enrichment facility on Nov. 12, we judged that North Korea made the artillery attack to give Kim Jong-un the status of a strong leader."

Kim also said that South Korean and U.S. troops have upgraded their surveillance alert against the North by a notch to the second-highest level to Watchcon-2 from Watchcon-3. He promised to bolster firepower on the five northernmost islands, including deploying more K-9 self-propelled Howitzers onto Yeonpyeong.

Lawmakers lambasted the defense chief, claiming that South Korea's response to the shelling came too late and too weak. South Korea returned fire, shooting about 80 rounds toward coastal artillery bases in North Korea, only 13 minutes after coming under attack.

Kim pledged to revise the code of engagement to ensure that the country gives at least twice as strong a response when under attack. The minister also said, however, that the government took into consideration the possibility of the clash escalating into a full-scale war.

Later Wednesday, the foreign ministry planned to brief all chief foreign envoys stationed in Seoul on the North's attack. But officials gave a measured response to the possibility of bringing the case to the U.N. Security Council for punishment of the communist nation.

"We haven't set our position on that yet," a foreign ministry official said of the possibility of a U.N. referral, speaking on the condition of anonymity. "I think we have to do some calculations of the cost and benefit of that before making our position."

The attitude reflects concern that it would be difficult to win support from China and Russia for a strong Council action against the North. The two countries are among the five veto-wielding permanent members of the council and have closer ties with North Korea than any other major nations.

Beijing and Moscow also refused to back Seoul's efforts to condemn North Korea for the March sinking of a South Korean warship, which killed 46 sailors.

South Korean stocks and the local currency opened sharply lower on Wednesday morning, but were paring losses later in the day. Financial authorities reassured investors that the geopolitical risk may only have a limited impact on the local financial sector due to the country's solid economic conditions.

"Unless the event further worsens, the impact will be only temporary given similar incidents in the past," the finance ministry said after holding an emergency economic policy meeting early in the morning with officials from the central bank and financial regulators.

South Korea will inject more liquidity into the market to counter excessive herd behavior, the ministry said after an emergency meeting of economic officials.


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