US says it will defend South Korea; China, Russia urge calm
The United States on Tuesday condemned a North Korean artillery attack that rained shells on a South Korean island while its partners in nuclear talks with Pyongyang expressed concern and called for calm, DPA reported.
"The United States strongly condemns this attack and calls on North Korea to halt its belligerent action and to fully abide by the terms of the Armistice Agreement," the White House said, referring to the ceasefire that ended the 1950-53 Korean War.
It added that it would defend its ally South Korea.
"The United States is firmly committed to the defence of our ally, the Republic of Korea, and to the maintenance of regional peace and stability," it said.
Two South Korean soldiers were killed, at least 13 were injured and four civilians were hurt by the shells that landed on Yeonpyeong island, 12 kilometres off North Korea's coast. South Korea returned fire in an exchange that lasted about an hour.
China, one of North Korea's few allies, said it was troubled by reports of the exchange of fire while adding, "The real situation needs to be confirmed."
"We hope relevant parties will do things conductive to peace and stability on the Korean Peninsula," Foreign Ministry spokesman Hong Lei said.
He called on six-nation talks aimed at ending North Korea's nuclear programme to quickly resume. The negotiations - which involve China, the United States, North and South Korea, Japan and Russia - have been stalled since the end of 2008.
Concerns have escalated recently over Pyongyang's nuclear programme, particularly after news at the weekend that it had a large, new uranium-enrichment facility. It said it is also building a light-water reactor.
Stephen Bosworth, US special representative for North Korea, arrived in Beijing Tuesday afternoon for talks with Chinese officials.
In Tokyo earlier Tuesday after talks with Japanese officials, Bosworth said the United States remained committed to the six-party talks despite reports that North Korea had built a new uranium-enrichment facility.
But he said US officials "do not contemplate resuming negotiations while active programmes are under way or while there is a possibility that the North Koreans will test another nuclear device or test a missile."
Russia advised prudence for both North and South Korea.
"It is important that there is no escalation," an official at the Foreign Ministry was quoted as saying by the Interfax news agency. "The situation must not further intensify."
Because of the increasing tensions between the two Koreas, Russia substantially increased its military presence on its border with North Korea months ago.
In Japan, which has long had difficult relations with North Korea, including seeing North Korean test missiles fly over its territory, Prime Minister Naoto Kan said he told his government to prepare for any circumstance.
"I gave them two instructions: first, to put all efforts into gathering information, and second, to prepare to be able to respond firmly to any contingency," Kan told reporters in Tokyo.
The Kyodo News agency quoted an unidentified, high-ranking official in the Foreign Ministry as saying, "It was a dangerous, provocative act by North Korea."