U.S., S. Korea Launch War Games

YEONPYEONG ISLAND, South Korea -- The rattle of new artillery fire from North Korea just hours after the U.S. and South Korea launched a round of war games in Korean waters sent residents, journalists, police and troops on a front-line island scrambling for cover Sunday.

None of the rounds landed on Yeonpyeong Island, military officials said, but the incident showed how tense the situation remains along the Koreas' disputed maritime border five days after a North Korean artillery attack decimated parts of the island and killed four South Koreans.

Saying they could not guarantee the journalists' safety, South Korea's Defense Ministry urged the media to leave the island and sent a 7 p.m. (1000 GMT) ship to ferry them off.

As the rhetoric from North Korea escalated, with new warnings of a "merciless" assault if further provoked, a top Chinese official made a last-minute visit to Seoul to confer with South Korean President Lee Myung-bak. Washington and Seoul have pressed China, North Korea's main ally and benefactor, to help defuse the situation amid fears of all-out war. Beijing has called for restraint on all sides.

Lee pressured State Councilor Dai Bingguo, a senior foreign policy adviser, to contribute to peace in a "more objective, responsible" matter, and warned Sunday that Seoul would respond "strongly" to any further provocation, his office said in a statement.

The strong words were Lee's first public comment in days. He was due to address the nation Monday morning amid calls from his people to take tougher action against the defiant North.

Dai forwarded Beijing's condolences and pledged China's help in preventing tensions from worsening, Lee's office said. Meanwhile, the chairman of North Korea's Supreme People's Assembly, Choe Thae Bok, was due to visit Beijing starting Tuesday, China's official Xinhua News Agency said.

North Korea's artillery attack Tuesday on Yeonpyeong Island, which hosts military bases as well as a civilian population of 1,300 who mostly make their living from fishing, marked a new level of hostility in the troubled relationship between the two Koreas.

Two marines and two civilians were killed, and 18 others wounded, when the North rained artillery on Yeonpyeong in one of the worst assaults since the 1950-53 Korean War. The attack reduced dozens of homes on the island to charred rubble.

The Korean peninsula technically remains in a state of war because the rivals signed a truce, not a peace treaty, in 1953. Their land border is the world's most heavily fortified.

On Sunday, South Korean troops accidentally fired a round of artillery in a southern section of the Demilitarized Zone, but quickly sent North Korea a message saying it was accidental, the Yonhap news agency reported.

However, North Korea disputes the maritime border drawn by U.N. forces at the close of the war, and considers the waters around Yeonpyeong Island -- 50 miles (80 kilometers) from the South Korean port of Incheon but just 7 miles (11 kilometers) from the North Korean mainland -- its territory.

The area has seen several bloody skirmishes, including the sinking of a South Korean warship eight months ago, killing 46 sailors. An international team of investigators concluded that a North Korean torpedo sank the ship, but Pyongyang denies any involvement.

North Korea said Saturday that the civilian deaths earlier in the week were "regrettable," but blamed South Korea for staging military drills against Pyongyang's warnings that it would consider such exercises a provocation. Pyongyang accused Seoul of using Yeonpyeong's residents as human shields.

The North Korea military also has mounted conventional, surface-to-air SA-2 missiles on launch pads on a west coast base, aiming them at South Korean fighter jets flying near the western sea border, Yonhap said, citing an unidentified South Korean government source.

South Korea's military said it couldn't confirm the deployments. An official at the Joint Chiefs of Staff said the North had already fielded anti-ship missiles on its west coast bases.

The war games launched Sunday by the U.S. and South Korea, including the USS George Washington supercarrier, were sure to heighten the tensions.

U.S. and South Korean ships got into position in the Yellow Sea on Sunday for the four-day exercise, said Cmdr. Jeff Davis, spokesman for the 7th Fleet in Yokosuka, Japan.

He said no live-fire drills were planned. Officials would not supply exact locations but Yonhap said the drills were taking place about 100 miles (160 kilometers) south of Yeonpyeong Island.

Washington, which keeps 28,500 troops in South Korea to protect the ally, insists the drills are routine and were planned well before last Tuesday's attack.

However, North Korea expressed outrage over the Yellow Sea drills.

"We will launch merciless counter-military strikes against any provocative moves that infringe upon our country's territorial waters," the North's main Rodong Sinmun newspaper said in an editorial carried by the official Korean Central News Agency.

On Sunday, the Defense Ministry said journalists "must" leave the island, saying their safety could not be guaranteed. An announcement sounded out over the loudspeakers in Yeonpyeong advising journalists to report to the dock for a 7 p.m. boat.

About 380 people, including 28 islanders and 190 journalists, were left on the island Sunday, according to Incheon city government officials who govern the island.

Sunday's burst of artillery fire in North Korea was the second in three days, and sent everyone left on the island -- including troops and police -- scrambling into underground bunkers.

A similar spate of artillery fire Friday occurred just as the U.S. military's top commander in the region, Gen. Walter Sharp, was touring Yeonpyeong Island. No shells landed anywhere in South Korean territory.

In Seoul, as monks chanted their morning prayers at Jogye Temple, Shim Jeong-wook, 74, said he didn't think North Korea would attack again, not with a U.S. aircraft carrier group in South Korean waters.

"I don't think North Korea will provoke while the U.S. Navy fleet is in the Yellow Sea," he said. "But who knows what will happen when it leaves?"