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US exercises ‘putting Korea on brink of war’

North Korea has warned that US-South Korean plans for military manoeuvres put the peninsula on the brink of war, and appeared to launch its own artillery drills within sight of the island it showered with a deadly barrage earlier this week.

The fresh artillery blasts were especially defiant because they came as the US commander in South Korea, General Walter Sharp, toured the South Korean island to survey damage from Tuesday's hail of North Korean artillery fire that killed four people.

None of the latest rounds hit the South's territory, although residents on other parts of Yeonpyeong panicked and ran back to the air raid shelters where they huddled earlier in the week as white smoke rose from North Korean territory.

Tensions have soared between the Koreas since the North's strike destroyed large parts of the island, killing two civilians and two marines in a major escalation of their sporadic skirmishes along the sea border.

The attack — eight months after a torpedo sank a South Korean warship further west, killing 46 sailors — has also laid bare weaknesses in South Korea's defence 60 years after the Korean War.

And the skirmish forced South Korea's beleaguered defence minister to resign on Thursday.

The heightened animosity between the Koreas is taking place as the North undergoes a delicate transition of power from leader Kim Jong Il to his young, inexperienced son Kim Jong Un, who is in his late 20s and is expected to eventually succeed his ailing father.

As Washington and Seoul pressed China to use its influence on Pyongyang to ease tensions amid worries of all-out war, the US prepared to send a nuclear-powered aircraft carrier to South Korean waters for joint military drills starting tomorrow.

The North, which sees the drills as a major military provocation, said: “The situation on the Korean peninsula is inching closer to the brink of war.”

The North Korean government does not recognise the maritime border drawn by the UN in 1953, and considers the waters around Yeonpyeong Island its territory.

Yeonpyeong, home to South Korean military bases as well as a civilian population of about 1,300 people, lies seven miles from North Korean shores and is not far from the spot where the South Korean warship sank in an explosion in March.

Gen Sharp said during his visit to the island that Tuesday's attack was a clear violation of an armistice signed in 1953 at the end of the three-year Korean War.

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