North Korea fired more than 100 artillery shells into Yeonpyeong Island off the west coast, killing two South Korean marines and wounding 21 people, and the South Korean Navy returned fire.
North Korea shells southern island, two fatalities reported
The North Korean barrage began at 2:34 p.m., and South Korea's response started at 3:42.
"I ran outside my house when my windows shattered from the blasts," said Lee Jong-sik, a resident of the island for over 50 years. A blast could be heard every five minutes, Lee said, which she described as the first attacks on the island.
The South Korean Joint Chiefs of Staff confirmed that several buildings on the island were damaged by North Korean shells. Witnesses said fires spread quickly on the island, and residents were evacuated to schools and safe houses.
Two marine fatalities were confirmed by the military, and 13 soldiers were wounded along with three civilians. Soldiers and civilians were brought to hospitals. The wounded soldiers are currently at the Armed Forces Capital Hospital on the mainland, and the military believes there may be more military or civilian casualties.
The Joint Chiefs of Staff put the whole country on highest military alert.
After the attacks began, Seoul dispatched F-16 fighter jets to the area, and South Korean government officials were called to an emergency meeting with President Lee Myung-bak at an underground bunker beneath the presidential compound. Lee was quoted by his spokeswoman earlier as saying: "Respond firmly, but make the best efforts not to worsen the situation."
The North fired more than 100 artillery shells, and the South responded with around 80. North Korea stopped their first round of firing at 2:55 p.m. and proceeded to continue firing at 3:10 p.m. until 3:41 p.m.. Around 4:42, shots were reported to die down from both sides, according to the South Korean military.
The South Korea military also reported "suspicious movements" of military equipment on the North Korean coast near South Korea's Baekryeong Island, which is 17 kilometers away from the North Korean coast.
Most of the islanders, who are fishermen, were out on their fishing boats yesterday afternoon.
The South Korean police also announced the highest alert for its officers nationwide.
Incheon City gave an order for all residents on the Yeonpyeong and Baekryeong Islands to evacuate from 4:00 p.m. The islands are the closest South Korean regions to North Korea and are home to 5,570 citizens. The 1,780 islanders of Yeonpyeong have currently evacuated to an air-raid shelter on the mainland.
At 6:05 p.m. the Blue House released a statement saying that South Korea would "severely punish additional North Korean provocation" and that the North Korean government should take responsibility of the incident.
Roughly 1,000 marines and sailors are stationed on the island. The waters off the South Korean west coast have been the setting for frequent maritime skirmishes between North and South Korea.
An annual nationwide military drill, called the Hoguk exercise, which include U.S. forces, began yesterday. North Korea has described the annual drill as a dress rehearsal for an invasion of the North. The U.S. Forces in South Korea said that there were no American soldiers on the island at the time of the attack.
The joint drill was conducting firing exercises yesterday morning near the island. North Korea sent messages to the South Korean government all morning, according to officials, criticizing the drill. The South Korea government explained in responses that the exercises were not an attack on North Korea.
The Joint Chiefs of Staff said that North Korea had attacked the island with the "joint exercises as an excuse."
All civil servants were ordered to assume emergency readiness at the order of Prime Minister Kim Hwang-sik.
The National Assembly stopped its legislative deliberations and cabinet members who were at budget discussion went to the Blue House shortly after the incident.
Asked if a war would break out, Defense Minister Kim Tae-young replied, "Didn't it start already? We must stop it from expanding."
The ruling and opposition parties condemned the North's deadly attack.
"It is impossible to hold our rage toward the North's shelling of the Yeonpyeong Island," said Grand National Party spokesman Ahn Hyoung-hwan. "North Korea must be held accountable for all the losses."
"Right now, national security is the top priority," said Ahn. "A political fight with the Democrats has no meaning. We urge the opposition parties' cooperation."
The Democratic Party also showed serious concern about the situation. "North Korea must stop all provocation that threaten the peace and stability of the Korean Peninsula," said DP Chairman Sohn Hak-kyu. "We urge the two Koreas to begin talks to prevent the situation from worsening."
The Democratic Party urged the Lee administration to take necessary measures to protect South Koreans' peace and safety.
The opposition party also suspended its rally at Seoul Plaza, scheduled to continue until Monday, to demand additional probes into the Lee administration's alleged power abuse and spying on civilians. "It is the party leadership's judgment that a political fight in the middle of a national security crisis is inappropriate," said DP spokeswoman Cha Young.
After the attacks, neighboring China voiced a cautious note, with a spokesman for the Chinese Foreign Ministry, Hong Lei, saying that the "truth of the situation had to be figured out" and that both sides of the Korean Peninsula should "do more to contribute to peace."
Russian media reported that the foreign ministry in Moscow said that "tensions should not rise on the Korean Peninsula."
Japanese press quoted a government official as saying that yesterday's incident could have a bigger effect than the sinking of the South Korean warship Cheonan in March.
According to Reuters, stocks in Hong Kong posted the biggest single day percentage lost in six months because of the attack.
The clashes took place 11 days after North Korea showed a visiting American nuclear scientist centrifuges that it said were being used to enrich uranium, which can be used in nuclear weapons.
By Christine Kim [firstname.lastname@example.orgemail@example.com]