South Korea's leadership was under growing political pressure last night for a military response against its belligerent neighbour, after the bodies of two civilians killed in Tuesday's shelling by North Korean forces were found on the island of Yeonpyeong.
Local media said the charred corpses of two construction workers were uncovered amongst rubble on the island in the Yellow Sea, north-west of the South's capital, Seoul. The bombardment also killed two marines, injured at least 18 people and sent many of Yeonpyeong's population fleeing for cover.
Civilians streaming to the mainland from the island yesterday described how shells rained down, hitting homes and shops and setting local mountains on fire.
"It was like the end of the world," one woman told South Korean television. The North has yet to reveal casualties on its side of the border.
Pyongyang said it was targeted first during "provocative" South Korean military drills and that it was aiming at an army base. Yesterday the North's state-run KCNA news agency said that Seoul had driven both sides to "the brink of war" and compared its demands for "punishment" to a thief crying "stop the thief".
The tense stand-off and war of words is likely to intensify in the coming days, ahead of a three-day joint South Korea-US military drill slated to start on Sunday in seas near the disputed North-South border. Washington sent the nuclear-powered USS George Washington aircraft carrier steaming for the South from Japan yesterday. The carrier will join a fleet of US ships in the area, including two destroyers.
The White House said that the drill had been planned in advance, but President Barack Obama reportedly moved the date forward after discussions with South Korea's President Lee Myung-bak. Washington said yesterday that the drill would "underscore the strength of our Alliance and commitment to peace and security in the region".
President Lee is receiving heavy flak from opposition politicians for his initially hesitant response to what is widely viewed as North Korean aggression. "There should have been an intense counter-attack by fighters on the North's coastal batteries," Kim Jang-su, a former minister of National Defence, said in parliament yesterday. Some hawks are clamouring for a military strike.
Many South Koreans, who have grown used to occasional skirmishes across the heavily militarised zone that divides the Korean Peninsula, are furious that the North apparently deliberately shelled a populated area. "Time for retaliation," said the daily JoongAng Ilbo newspaper. Another newspaper denounced the attack as a "war crime" launched at the instigation of the North's ailing leader Kim Jong-il. "The Seoul government can hardly afford to negotiate with Pyongyang after it bombarded residential areas," said the Dong-A Ilbo. "This incident has demonstrated yet again how dangerous and meaningless dialogue and negotiations are in trying to change Pyongyang."
But President Lee's options are limited, short of military action that could quickly escalate into full-scale war against its nuclear-armed neighbour. Seoul had already cut off most cross-border ties and imposed punishing sanctions on Pyongyang after the sinking of the South Korean Cheonan warship earlier this year, widely blamed on the North. Some were already predicting that the skirmish will go down in history as just one of the occasional bloody episodes staged by the North Koreans.
"This is one of our many dilemmas," said Lee Jong-min, a dean at Yonsei University. "We are so used to living with the North Korean threat and just say, 'Those North Koreans are crazy'." That response, he said, was in itself crazy considering that the attack was "the first time they've shot at Korean territory since the Korean War".
President Lee's difficult position was underlined yesterday by conflicting reports about his office's initial response to the shelling. Shortly after the attack began, he reportedly said that the South's military should "carefully manage the situation" to prevent an escalation. But after criticism of the response from opposition lawmakers, President Lee's office said he had ordered jets to strike a North Korean missile base, The Korea Herald reported.
Many Koreans had put their hopes in the so-called Sunshine Policy of reconciliation between the two Cold War enemies when Kim Dae-jung was president of the South from 1998 to 2003. He not only met North Korea's leader, Kim Jong-il, but agreed on a wide range of cultural and commercial ties.
Mr Kim's successor, Roh Moo-hyun, continued with the policy until stepping down in February 2008 when he was replaced by the conservative Mr Lee, who has since taken a much harder line.
In that era, one newspaper noted, "any unintended clashes" would "immediately set in motion channels for emergency dialogue." This time, the paper said, "there was no senior-level emergency communication." That explained "why this incident warrants more serious concern. "
President Lee's office has rejected the North's claims that the South's military provoked Tuesday's exchange. "We have come to the judgment that what happened on Yeonpyeong Island was a definite military provocation against the Republic of Korea," it said. Military forces across the South are still on high alert as the people of Seoul, just south of the border, wonder what will come next.
Who calls the shots in North Korea?
Purposefully shrouded in an overwhelming air of mystery, the leader of North Korea holds ultimate power over the nation's political and military strategy. Weakened by ill health, the 69-year-old is believed to be grooming his son Kim Jong-un as his successor.
Third son and political heir apparent to Kim Jong-il, 27-year-old Kim Jong-un's political might has risen sharply in the last six months. Recent inflammatory events are thought to be Kim Jong-il's efforts to prove his son's worth and therefore ensure he succeeds as leader.
Widely believed to be the key challenger to Kim Jong-un's succession, Kim Jong-il's 64-year-old brother-in-law is vice chairman of the country's National Defence Commission and is thought to be the leader's deputy. Unlike Jong-un, he is a long-standing political force.
Chief of staff for the People's Army and vice chairman of the Central Military Commission of the Workers' Party, Ri Yong-ho is reported to have been second in of command for the attack on South Korea earlier this week, as is Kim Jong-un.