President Barack Obama said the U.S. commitment to South Korea is “unshakable” and he plans to call counterpart Lee Myung Bak to discuss North Korea’s attack on a populated island close to a disputed maritime border.
Obama met with his top security officials today after returning from a trip to Indiana and was briefed on the incident, according to a White House statement. North Korea yesterday fired artillery shells at the South Korean island of Yeonpyeong, killing two soldiers and setting houses ablaze.
“The president reiterated the unshakable support of the United States for our ally, the Republic of Korea, and discussed ways to advance peace and security on the Korean peninsula going forward,” the statement said.
Obama’s meeting in the White House Situation Room included national security adviser Tom Donilon, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, Defense Secretary Robert Gates, Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman Admiral Michael Mullen and United Nations Ambassador Susan Rice.
Obama plans to speak by phone with Lee later today, although the precise timing hasn’t been set, Bill Burton, a White House spokesman, said. Gates spoke earlier with South Korean Defense Minister Kim Tae Young. He told Kim that the U.S. views the incident “as a violation of the armistice agreement and assured him that we are committed to South Korea’s defense,” spokesman Geoff Morrell said.
The U.S. has about 25,000 troops in South Korea.
Burton called the shelling "a particularly outrageous act."
"North Korea has a habit of doing things that are provocative," Burton told reporters traveling with Obama on Air Force One. “We’re going to continue doing everything that we need to do to make sure that we’re defending our ally South Korea and that there’s security and stability in the region.”
House Minority Leader John Boehner, an Ohio Republican set to become speaker in January, issued a statement calling North Korea “an unstable, aggressive regime.”
“I join the president in condemning its hostile action,” Boehner said. “We will stand by South Korea and are firmly committed to defending our ally.”
Stocks sank while the dollar and the Swiss franc rallied. The Standard & Poor’s 500 Index fell 1.4 percent, after the Stoxx Europe 600 Index dropped 1.3 percent. The dollar appreciated 1.9 percent to $1.3373 at 4:02 p.m. in New York.
Tensions with Kim Jong Il’s regime have risen in the past year after the sinking of the South Korean warship Cheonan in March killed 46 sailors. Obama this week dispatched envoy Stephen Bosworth to Asia after a U.S. scientist reported that North Korea said it had built a uranium-enrichment plant.
“The combination of the enrichment revelations and then this artillery attack really make it a front-burner issue” for the administration, said Victor Cha, who holds the Korea Chair at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington.
The U.S. challenge is to get China to put more pressure on North Korea, said Cha, a former deputy head of the U.S. delegation to the six-party talks involving the U.S., China, Japan, Russia, South Korea and North Korea. Those talks are aimed at getting the government in Pyongyang to dismantle its nuclear weapons program.
While pushing China, the U.S. also must assure Japan and South Korea that it is “fashioning a response that is strong enough to deter more provocations but not so strong that you start a war,” he said. “And, very frankly, that is a very tough needle to thread.”
China expressed “concern” over the North Korean shelling.
“We hope the parties do more to contribute to peace and stability on the Korean Peninsula,” Foreign Ministry spokesman Hong Lei told reporters in Beijing yesterday. Reports on North Korea’s new uranium-enrichment plant underscore the need for disarmament talks, Hong said.
“What is important is to restart six-party nuclear talks at an early date,” he said.
United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, a former South Korean foreign minister, condemned the attack and called it “one of the gravest incidents since the end of the Korean War.” Ban, in a statement released in New York, said he was “deeply concerned” by the incident, which he blamed on North Korea, and urged “immediate restraint.”
Sixteen South Korean soldiers and three civilians were injured in the shelling, said a Defense Ministry official speaking on condition of anonymity because of military policy. Joint Chiefs of Staff official Lee Hong Kee called the shelling, which began around 2:30 p.m. local time, an “intentional attack.”
North Korea initiated the exchange of artillery fire, Bosworth, the U.S. envoy, told reporters in Beijing at a news conference after meeting with Chinese officials. The U.S. and China share the view that “such conflict is very undesirable” and agreed that all sides should exercise restraint, Bosworth said.
North Korea accused South Korea of opening fire first and warned of more “merciless military attacks” if its territory is violated. The North Korean army’s Supreme Command made the statement in the official Korean Central News Agency.
“The North Korean issue is a tinder box for the region,” said Gavin Parry, managing director of Hong Kong-based Parry International Trading Ltd. “They like to saber-rattle for attention, but on the heels of a nuclear inspection that indicated they could have bomb capabilities, markets can’t afford to ignore any instability for the region.”
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