LOS ANGELES (CBS/AP) — Many Koreatown residents say they aren’t surprised by the tension between North Korea and South Korea. However, many place the blame for Tuesday’s deadly offensive on North Korea.
North Korea shot dozens of rounds of artillery onto a populated South Korean island near their disputed western border Tuesday, military officials said, setting buildings on fire and prompting South Korea to return fire and scramble fighter jets.
At least two South Korean marines were killed in the shelling and 16 other people injured, according to South Korea’s Joint Chiefs of Staff, which issued a statement calling the shelling an “inhuman act”.
The skirmish came amid tension over North Korea’s claim that it has a new uranium enrichment facility and just over a month after North Korean leader Kim Jong Il unveiled his youngest son Kim Jong Un as his heir apparent
CBS News correspondent Celia Hatton reports that the island’s roughly 1,200 residents took cover as the shelling continued for about an hour.
South Korean president Lee Myung-bak said Seoul will unleash an “enormous retaliation” should the North attack again and that its “indiscriminate attack on civilians can never be tolerated.”
His comments were posted on the presidential website and made during a visit to the Joint Chiefs of Staff’s command and control room.
Initially, Lee ordered officials to issue a “stern” response, and the South did fire across the border, but he also stressed the need to prevent the clash from escalating.
A Joint Chiefs official said dozens of rounds of artillery landed on the island and in the sea.
A South Korean military official said the North’s premeditated attack violated the 1953 Korean War armistice agreement. Lee Hong-ki called the artillery firings on civilians “inhumane atrocities.”
The first North Korean response seemed to be one of defiance, with a statement from Pyongyang stating the strikes would continue as long as the South continued violating the two nations’ disputed sea border.
The countries’ western maritime boundary has long been a flash point. The North does not recognize the border that was unilaterally drawn by the United Nations at the close of the 1950-53 Korean War. North and South Korea have fought three bloody skirmishes near the maritime border in recent years, most recently in November 2009.
The prevailing view is that the latest attack was in response to South Korean military drills – meant to prepare for an all-out North Korean invasion – involving close to 100,000 troops.
However, some experts are saying that the attack is primarily a step in the grooming of Kim Jong-un, the 26-year-old son and recently anointed successor of ailing ruler Kim Jong-il.
Citing a North Korea expert at Beijing’s Central Party School, Zhang Liangui, The Sydney Morning Herald reported Tuesday that the younger Kim was “deliberately destabilizing the environment in order to mobilize the military and consolidate his power.”
The White House strongly condemned the North’s attack against the island. In a statement released before dawn Tuesday, Press Secretary Robert Gibbs called on North Korea to “halt its belligerent action.”
He said the United States is “firmly committed” to South Korea’s defense, and to the “maintenance of regional peace and stability.”
The White House spokesman said the U.S. was in “close and continuing contact” with the South Korean government.
The clash comes amid tension over North Korea’s claim that it has a new uranium enrichment facility and just over a month after North Korean leader Kim Jong Il unveiled his youngest son Kim Jong Un as his heir apparent.
The U.S. special envoy for North Korea said Monday that Pyongyang’s claim of a new enrichment facility was provocative and disappointing but not a crisis or a surprise. Washington, he vowed, would keep working closely with its regional partners in response.
Stephen Bosworth’s comments, following a meeting with South Korean Foreign Minister Kim Sung-hwan, came as the United States and the North’s neighbors scrambled to deal with Pyongyang’s revelation to a visiting American nuclear scientist of its highly sophisticated, modern enrichment operation that had what the North says are 2,000 recently completed centrifuges.
Top U.S. military officials warned the new facility could speed up the North’s ability to make and deliver viable nuclear weapons. South Korea’s defense minister, meanwhile, told lawmakers Monday that Seoul will discuss the possibility of having the U.S. bring tactical nuclear weapons back into the country.
Tensions between the two Koreas also remain tense after the sinking in March of a South Korean warship in which 46 sailors died. Seoul has blamed a North Korean torpedo, while Pyongyang has denied any responsibility.
(© MMX, CBS Interactive Inc. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed. The Associated Press contributed to this report.)