Nightly News   |  November 23, 2010

Standing behind S. Korea, U.S. reacts with restraint

The United States has demanded that North Korea stop its "belligerent action" and urged South Korea to respond with restraint, but the crisis has presented President Obama with a profound political conundrum. NBC's Andrea Mitchell reports.

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This content comes from a Full-Text Transcript of the program.

WILLIAMS: Good evening.

BRIAN WILLIAMS, anchor: We begin with what may be the largest confrontation of its kind since the Korean War . Tonight South Korea is threatening enormous retaliation after an attack by North Korea , in a dangerous part of the world, where the chance of a nuclear confrontation already runs high on a good day. The first attack happened while most Americans were sleeping. It was after midnight Eastern time . The North fired a barrage of artillery at an island controlled by South Korea . Two soldiers were killed. After the volleys that followed, there were reports of dozens of homes and buildings on fire. President Obama has had morning and evening briefings. Here's a photograph of tonight's meeting in the situation room. Tensions remain high, with the South threatening a counterattack. We want to begin our reporting here tonight with our chief foreign affairs correspondent, Andrea Mitchell . Andrea , good evening.

ANDREA MITCHELL reporting: Good evening, Brian . This was basically an act of war. Arguably North Korea 's worst attack on civilian targets since the Korean War . The big question tonight, why did Pyongyang do it, and how will South Korea respond? The crisis began routinely. Eight PM Monday night, Eastern time , South Korea is engaging in a military drill after notifying the North . Midnight Eastern , four hours later, North Korea starts firing dozens of rounds of artillery onto a highly-populated South Korean island, killing two South Korean marines, injuring dozens more, including civilians. For more than an hour, North Korea unleashes a barrage of artillery, about 80 shells. South Korea scrambles F-16 fighter jets and returns fire almost immediately. 3:55 AM , President Obama is awakened by the national security adviser, Tom Donilon . 4:33 AM , the White House issues a written statement saying, " The United States strongly condemns this attack and calls on North Korea to halt its belligerent action." 9:15, the Oval Office , Donilon and director of national intelligence , General James Clapper , brief the president. The US decides not to respond or escalate, urging South Korea to show restraint. In Seoul , South Korea 's President Lee Myung -bak meets with his generals and threatens "an enormous retaliation" if the North attacks again. In fact, this is the second attack from the North in eight months. In March, Pyongyang sank a South Korean ship, killing 46 sailors. Is all this a show of strength as North Korea 's ailing leader, Kim Jong Il , prepares to turn over power to his youngest son, Kim Jong-un ?

Mr. KENNETH LIEBERTHAL (Asia Expert): The younger Kim is being encouraged to show that he can be strong, that he's a tough guy. And so this is probably not the last such provocation we're going to see. And these are really acts of war.

MITCHELL: Special US envoy Stephen Bosworth , already in Beijing , pressed China today to get Pyongyang to stop its aggression.

Mr. STEPHEN BOSWORTH: We strongly believe that a multilateral diplomatic approach is the only way to realistically resolve these problems.

MITCHELL: China , along with the US, signed the armistice in 1953 that ended the Korean War , and is obligated to help police the cease-fire. But China has been reluctant, reports NBC Beijing bureau chief Adrienne Mong .

ADRIENNE MONG reporting: China is unlikely to do America 's bidding, but this latest situation puts Beijing in a delicate position. As an ally of North Korea , it has considerable influence. But China is also concerned about regional stability and afraid of being overrun by refugees should North Korea collapse.

MITCHELL: In recent days, North Korea also shocked the US by revealing that, despite tough sanctions, it has built a sophisticated uranium enrichment plant potentially capable of producing powerful atomic bombs. The Stanford nuclear expert who saw that plant briefed Secretary of State Clinton today. Tonight the president is calling South Korea 's president and the US officials here are hoping for a united front at the United Nations , even though that has not

stopped North Korea before. Brian: We're watching this one very closely. Andrea Mitchell , part of

WILLIAMS: