U.S., South Korea begin war games

Emotions remained raw throughout the Korean peninsula Sunday as a U.S. aircraft carrier group arrived for joint American-South Korean naval exercises, and North Korea prepared surface-to-surface missiles on launchpads along the Yellow Sea.

The maneuvers followed a North Korean artillery attack last week that killed four and injured 20 on South Korean-controlled Yeonpyeong Island. For a time on Sunday, remaining residents on the tiny isle were ordered into evacuation shelters after reports of the sound of North Korean artillery.

Bitter enemies, Seoul and Pyongyang both blame the other for the attack, which South Korea called the first Northern strike against Southern territory in more than half a century. North Korea says the South fired first in provocation and then used civilians as "human shields."

Pyongyang also lashed out at Washington, saying the U.S. used the South's attack as a ploy to send the aircraft carrier George Washington and its 75 bomber jets and crew of 6,000 into the Yellow Sea. The carrier is accompanied by at least four other warships.

China, which has expressed unease over the presence of the U.S. firepower so close to its borders, sent a delegation of Foreign Ministry officials to Seoul late Saturday for talks, at which they reportedly also discussed ending North Korea's nuclear program.

Chinese news reports said Sunday that a high-ranking North Korean official will visit Beijing in coming days. Choe Tae Bok, the head of the North Korean parliament, is the most senior visitor from Pyongyang since the North-South skirmish erupted.

Tuesday's attack set in motion a fast-forward series of events, starting with criticism of South Korean President Lee Myung-bak for his military's tepid response to the shelling.

South Korea's defense minister resigned his post Thursday, a move applauded by many who blamed his ministry for mishandling the North's alleged sinking in March of a Southern warship that killed 46 sailors.

Analysts call the North's provocations a campaign to rally its people and boost its million-man military apparatus as Kim Jong Il transfers power to his youngest son. Pyongyang may also be testing perceived weaknesses in South Korea's defenses before the North resumes its place at the long-stalled six-party nuclear talks.

Threats from both North and South continued over the weekend.

On Saturday, North Korea's state-controlled media warned against the war games. In Seoul, as officials held an emotional funeral for two South Korean marines killed in Tuesday's shelling attack, South Korea's marine commander promised a "thousand-fold" retaliation.

On Sunday, as a flotilla of ships took position in the Yellow Sea south of Yeonpyeong Island for maneuvers, there were reports of North Korean artillery firing, but no shells hit the embattled islet.

Still, Seoul officials were poised for the North to follow up on threats after a statement from Pyongyang on Sunday that read, in part, "We will deliver a brutal military blow on any provocation which violates our territorial waters."


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