Image: South Korean ships stage off Yeonpyeong Island
David Guttenfelder  /  AP
South Korean ships stage off of the coast of South Korea's Yeonpyeong Island Sunday ahead of war games with U.S. forces.
msnbc.com news services
updated 11/28/2010 12:59:54 AM ET 2010-11-28T05:59:54

The United States and South Korea launched war games Sunday as North Korea deployed missiles and threatened another attack if military exercises violate its territorial waters.

China said it would join efforts to ease the "worrisome" situation.

An artillery round was fired from North Korea on Sunday, officials said, triggering an evacuation order on Yeonpyeong Island, where four people died Tuesday in the North's bombardment. The order was lifted when no shells hit the tiny Yellow Sea home of fishing enclaves and military outposts.

South Koreans are demanding vengeance over the North Korean bombardment, but Pyongyang is blaming Seoul and the United States for triggering the attack.

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The joint military drills began 6 a.m. local time (4 p.m. ET) in the Yellow Sea, west of the Korean peninsula town of Taean, south of the site of Tuesday's attack, according to Korean military officials quoted by Yonhap, Reuters and other news agencies.

However, officials told NBC News that the maneuvers would not start until midafternoon as the nuclear-powered aircraft carrier USS George Washington had just arrived in the area to join the exercise. They added that no live-fire exercises are planned during the three-day war games.

The George Washington, which carries 75 warplanes and has a crew of more than 6,000, will be accompanied by at least four other warships.

Anticipating 'provocation'
China has expressed displeasure with the exercises while North Korea earlier said the consequences could not be predicted.

South Korean President Lee Myung-bak told ministers and aides to be ready for further "provocation" by North Korea during the drill.

"There is the possibility that North Korea may do some unexpected action, so please perfectly prepare against it through cooperation with the Korea-U.S. joint force," Lee was quoted by a spokesman as saying.

North Korea has placed surface-to-surface missiles on launch pads in the Yellow Sea, Yonhap news agency reported on Sunday. The agency said also that Pyongyang had moved surface-to-air missiles to frontline areas. The North's official KCNA news agency warned of retaliatory action if its territory was violated.

"We will deliver a brutal military blow on any provocation which violates our territorial waters," KCNA said.

The exercises are being held about 75 miles south of the disputed maritime border near Yeonpyeong Island.

Image: South Korean Marines and residents take shelter on Yeonpyeong Island.
KIM JAE-HWAN  /  AFP - Getty Images
South Korean Marines and residents take shelter in a bunker Sunday after sirens and broadcast warnings went off on Yeonpyeong Island, where an artillery bombardment by North Korea killed four people Tuesday.

"(The missiles) appear to be targeting our fighter jets that fly near the Northern Limit Line," a government source said on condition of anonymity, referring to the Yellow Sea border.

Earlier, North Korea worked to justify one of the worst attacks on South Korean territory since the 1950-53 Korean War. Four South Koreans, including two civilians, died after the North rained artillery on the small Yellow Sea island of Yeonpyeong, which is home to both fishing communities and military bases.

North Korea said civilians were used as a "human shield" around artillery positions and lashed out at what it called a "propaganda campaign" against Pyongyang.

It claimed the United States orchestrated last Tuesday's clash so that it could stage joint naval exercises in the Yellow Sea with the South that include a U.S. nuclear powered supercarrier — enraging the North and making neighboring China uneasy.

China in talks
China sent a senior official, State Councilor Dai Bingguo, to Seoul on Saturday for talks with Foreign Minister Kim Sung-hwan, South Korea's Yonhap news agency reported. Dai, accompanied by chief Chinese nuclear negotiator Wu Dawei, discussed Tuesday's attack and international talks on ending North Korea's nuclear programs, it said.

Lee told Dai: "We ask that China make a contribution to peace on the Korean peninsula by taking a more fair and responsible position on South-North Korea ties."

On Sunday, China's official Xinhua news agency said the talks between Dai and Lee were "in-depth and frank."

"Stressing that the current situation on the peninsula is worrisome, the two sides agreed that the parties concerned should make joint efforts to engage in serious contacts and dialogue to ease the tensions," Xinhua reported.

Also Sunday, Xinhua said that Choe Tae-Bok, chairman of North Korea's Supreme People's Assembly, or parliament, will visit China from Tuesday through Saturday.

New level of hostility
The North Korean attack on an area with a civilian population marked a new level of hostility along the rivals' disputed sea border. Only eight months ago, according to the findings of a South Korean-led international investigation, a North Korean torpedo sank a South Korean warship in waters farther west, killing 46 sailors.

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The aggression could be linked to the North's attempt to strengthen its government as it pursues a delicate transfer of power from leader Kim Jong Il to a young, unproven son. It also may reflect Pyongyang's frustration that it has been unable to force a resumption of stalled international talks on receiving aid in return for nuclear disarmament.

The attack laid bare weaknesses 60 years after the Korean War in South Korea's defenses against the North, which does not recognize the border drawn by the U.N. at the close of the conflict and which considers waters around Yeonpyeong as its territory.

The skirmish prompted Lee to replace his defense minister on Friday.

Story: South Korea honors slain marines; commander vows 'thousand-fold' retaliation

At a funeral Saturday near Seoul, South Korea's marine commander, Maj. Gen. You Nak-jun, vowed a "thousand-fold" retaliation for the attack. Dignitaries and relatives laid white flowers at an altar for the two marines killed in the North's attack. The mother of one of the victims fell forward in her chair in grief.

Image: Mother of slain marine mourns
Ahn Young-joon  /  AP
Kim Oh-bock, mother of Seo Jeong-woo, a South Korean marine killed in Tuesday's North Korean bombardment, cries as she holds the casket containing the remains of her son during a funeral service in Seongnam, South Korea, on Saturday.

Passers-by paused at Seoul's main train station to watch funeral footage on a big screen.

"Once the enemy attacks us, it is our duty to respond even more strongly," said student Jeon Hyun-soo, 19. "The South Korean people want this."

'Let's go!'
Elsewhere in Seoul, about 70 former special forces troops protested what they called the government's weak response and scuffled with riot police in front of the Defense Ministry, pummeling the riot troops' helmets with wooden stakes and spraying fire extinguishers.

"Let's go!" the activists shouted, as police, numbering several hundred, pushed back with shields.

North Korea's state news agency said that although "it is very regrettable, if it is true, that civilian casualties occurred on Yeonpyeong island, its responsibility lies in enemies' inhumane action of creating a 'human shield' by deploying civilians around artillery positions."

The North said its enemies are "now working hard to dramatize 'civilian casualties' as part of its propaganda campaign."

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South Korea was conducting artillery drills Tuesday from the island, located just 7 miles from North Korea's mainland, but fired away from the mainland.

The North said it warned South Korea to halt the drills on the morning of the attack, as part of "superhuman efforts to prevent the clash to the last moment."

The North said that Sunday's U.S.-South Korean war games showed that the United States was "the arch criminal who deliberately planned the incident and wire-pulled it behind the scene."

The war games involving the USS George Washington supercarrier display resolve by Korean War allies Washington and Seoul to respond strongly to any future North Korean aggression. However, Washington has insisted the drills are routine and were planned well before last Tuesday's attack.

Video: N. Korea flexing muscles amid power shift

North Korea on Saturday warned of retaliatory attacks creating a "sea of fire" if its territory is violated.

President Lee told top officials "there is a possibility North Korea may take provocative actions during the (joint) exercise," and urged them to coordinate with U.S. forces to counter any such move, according to a spokesman in the president's office who spoke on condition of anonymity, citing official protocol.

Washington and Seoul have pressed China to use its influence on Pyongyang to ease tensions. China is impoverished North Korea's biggest benefactor and its only major ally.

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The North's artillery barrage Tuesday destroyed civilian homes as well as military bases on Yeonpyeong Island.

President Lee has ordered reinforcements for the 4,000 troops on Yeonpyeong and four other Yellow Sea islands, as well as top-level weaponry and upgraded rules of engagement.

Most of the islanders fled to the mainland after the barrage set off fierce blazes that destroyed many of their communities. It will take six months to two years for island communities to rebuild, disaster relief official Kim Sang-ryul said.

Reuters, NBC News and The Associated Press contributed to this report.

Video: North Korea’s dire warnings raise tension

  1. Closed captioning of: North Korea’s dire warnings raise tension

    >>> to south korea now where tensions are running high over north korea 's attack earlier this week and the north's dire warnings about tomorrow's planned military exercises between the u.s. and south korea . nbc's chief foreign correspondent richard engel is in south korea for us tonight. richard, good evening.

    >> reporter: hello, savannah. it is already sunday here in south korea . and a senior u.s. military official told nbc news the military exercises are going ahead this morning amid increasing calls in this country to take a harder stance against north korea . demonstrators in seoul lashed out for firing several hundred artillery rounds on a south korean island last tuesday killing four people. and angry with their own government, accusing it of showing so much restraint it looks weak. at a state funeral for two marines killed along with two civilians during the bombardment, the south korean marine commander took a hard line. he threatened revenge a thousand times over. in pyongyang in north korea , the government called the civilian deaths very regrettable. but state controlled television also accused the south of using civilians as human shields . it said the region is on the brink of war. the north has long used fear and conflict with the south to justify its continued authoritarian rule. the united states is sending a message of its own, moving in the " uss george washington " carrier strike group. some think the show of force won't change much.

    >> frankly this is the kind of thing that we do often with the north koreans . it's just frustrating because it's getting us no are where. meanwhile, they are getting ready to build more nuclear weapons. that's the dilemma.

    >> reporter: but after this week's attack, south korea has expanded the training, sent more troops and increased surveillance of the north.

    >> the north may still use this as a pretext for responding with another conventional act, whether it's another artillery shelling or some other action that's even more pro-vok it tiff.

    >> reporter: north korea has threatened to create a sea of fire if its territory is violated either by south korea or the united states . for its part, china, which has influence over north korea , has sent a diplomatic envoy here to try and ease tensions during these military exercises which are scheduled to last four days. savannah?

    >> all right, richard engel on sunday morning in south korea , thank you, richard.

Photos: Tension in the Koreas

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  1. A South Korean border guard mans a post through a fence draped with re-unification ribbons near the border village of Panmunjom in Paju, South Korea, on Dec. 22, 2010. South Korea vowed Wednesday to "punish the enemy" as hundreds of troops, fighter jets, tanks and attack helicopters prepared massive new drills near the heavily armed border a month after a deadly North Korean artillery attack. (Wally Santana / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  2. A North Korean defector takes part in a candle light vigil on the eve of the one month anniversary of the North Korea's attack on Yeonpyeong Island in downtown Seoul, South Korea, on Dec. 22. (Ng Han Guan / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  3. A combination of photos shows North Korean soldiers taking part in a shooting exercise at a field in Kaepoong county, on the north side of the demilitarized zone (DMZ) separating the two Koreas, in this picture taken from south of the DMZ in Paju, about 31 miles north of Seoul, on Dec. 22. (Jo Yong-hak / Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  4. South Korean soldiers patrol a seashore in Dangjin, about 120 km 75 miles south of Seoul on December 21. (Yonhap / Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  5. Bae Bok-soon (R), an older sister of Bae Bok-chul, cries during the funeral for the two civilians who died when North Korea shelled Yeonpyeong Island on November 23, in Incheon, west of Seoul on De. 6. (Jo Yong-hak / Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  6. Crew members watch as an F/A-18E Super Hornet lands on the deck of the aircraft carrier USS George Washington during a naval exercise with South Korea in the Yellow Sea on Tuesday, Nov. 30. The drills come amid heightened tension in the region after a North Korean artillery attack on South Korea's Yeonpyeong island last week. (Park Ji-hwan / AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  7. Staff watch radar screens in the Combat Direction Center on the USS George Washington during the military drills off South Korea. (Wally Santana / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  8. Former South Korean special agents whose mission was to infiltrate North Korea, sing a military song during a rally on the Yeonpyeong island, South Korea. About 85 former agents, who criticized the North's attack and urged the South Korean government to punish Pyongyang, landed the island Nov. 30 and said they would stay for a week to help with reconstruction. (Lee Jin-man / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  9. South Korean marines await navy ships carrying military equipment on Yeonpyeong island on Tuesday, Nov. 30. (Yonhap / Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  10. North Korean defectors and anti-North Korea activists release balloons for North Korea containing $1,000 in $1 notes and anti-North Korean leaflets in Paju, north of Seoul. (Jo Yong-hak / Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  11. South Korean middle school students learn how to use a gas mask in a mock chemical attack in Seoul. (Ahn Young-joon / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  12. During a rally denouncing last week's bombardment, Korea Freedom Federation members shout outside the Chinese Embassy in Seoul on Nov. 29. (Ahn Young-joon / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  13. South Korean marines watch President Lee Myung-Bak's news conference on a television minitor on Yeonpyeong island on Nov. 29. Lee condemned North Korea's recent shelling of the South Korean border island, calling an attack against civilians an "inhumane" crime. (Jeon Heon-Kyun / EPA) Back to slideshow navigation
  14. South Korean ships stage off the coast of South Korea's Yeonpyeong Island on Nov. 28 as war drills by the United States and South Korea began. (David Guttenfelder / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  15. South Korean protesters hold candles during a rally in Seoul opposing the military exercise between South Korea and the United States. (Park Ji-hwan / AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  16. South Korean women take cover inside a bomb shelter on Yeonpyeong Island after authorities sounded the alarm over a possible North Korean rocket attack on Nov. 28. It proved to be a false alarm. (David Guttenfelder / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  17. A North Korean soldier, right, looks back as she and another soldier patrol on a pathway along the bank of the Yalu River near Sinuiju, North Korea, Nov. 28. (Andy Wong / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  18. A South Korean police car is reflected in the shattered glass of a restaurant window along a seaside road on Yeonpyeong island on Nov. 27. (David Guttenfelder / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  19. Former South Korean marines burn images of North Korean leader Kim Jong Il, right, and his son Kim Jong Un, during a rally Nov. 27 in Seoul. (Wally Santana / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  20. Kim Oh-bock, mother of Seo Jung-woo, a South Korean marine killed in the Nov. 23 North Korean bombardment, cries as she holds his casket during a funeral service Nov. 27 at a military hospital in Seongnam. (Ahn Young-joon / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  21. South Korean marines carry flag-draped caskets of two comrades during a funeral service Nov. 27 in Seongnam. (Ahn Young-joon / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  22. The mother of South Korean marine Moon Kwang-wook, another marine killed by North Korea's attack on Yeonpyeong Island, cries Nov. 27 at her son's funeral. (Kim Kyung-hoon / Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  23. South Korean protesters denouncing North Korean attack on an island close to the border between the two nations burn a North Korean flag in Seoul on Nov. 24. After North Korea's strike, South Korea and the United States said they would launch four-day naval exercises in the Yellow Sea involving an American aircraft carrier. (Jung Yeon-Je / AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  24. South Korean protesters trample on a picture of North Korea's leader Kim Jong Il in Seoul on Nov. 24. (Wally Santana / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  25. A Buddhist monk shouts slogans with protesters at a rally denouncing North Korea in Seoul on Nov. 24. (Truth Leem / Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  26. A man walks past a house wrecked by artillery shells fired by North Korea on Yeonpyeong island, Nov. 24. (Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  27. Destroyed houses are seen on Yeonpyeong island on Nov. 24. (Dong-A Ilbo / AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  28. South Korean survivors react upon their arrival at a port in Incheon, west of Seoul, South Korea on Nov. 24. (Lee Jin-man / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  29. A destroyed house is seen on Nov. 24 after it was hit by artillery shells fired by North Korea on Yeonpyeong Island. (Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  30. South Korean marines, who were injured when North Korean artillery shelled Yeonpyeong island, sit on beds at a military hospital in Seongnam on Nov. 24. (Yonhap / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  31. South Korean residents take shelter from North Korea's attack on Yeonpyeong island, South Korea, Nov. 24. (AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  32. People stand near destroyed houses on Yeonpyeong Island, South Korea, Nov. 24. (AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  33. South Korean police officers load relief supplies for villagers of Yeonpyeong Island, at a port in Incheon, west of Seoul, South Korea, Nov. 24. (Lee Jin-man / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  34. South Korean residents take shelter from North Korea's attack on Yeonpyeong island on Nov. 23. (AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  35. South Korean Red Cross workers load relief supplies bound for Yeonpyeong Island at a port in Incheon, west of Seoul, Nov. 24. (Yonhap / Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  36. A resident of the Yeonpyeong Island arrives at Incheon port, South Korea, on Nov. 23. (Kim Chul-soo / EPA) Back to slideshow navigation
  37. A picture taken off television shows the moment of impact of one of the artillery shells fired by North Korea onto the South Korean island of Yeonpyeong. (Reuters TV) Back to slideshow navigation
  38. This picture taken by a South Korean tourist shows huge plumes of smoke rising from Yeonpyeong Island in the disputed waters of the Yellow Sea on Nov. 23. North Korea fired dozens of artillery shells onto the South Korean island, killing two people, setting homes ablaze and triggering retaliatory fire by the South. It was one of the most serious clashes between the two sides in decades. (AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
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    Above: Slideshow (38) Tension in the Koreas
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