BEIJING // The charred bodies of two men were found at a construction site yesterday on South Korea's Yeonpyeong Island, one day after North Korean shells rained down on the territory and as pressure grew on China to rein in Pyongyang amid fears of further violence.
Seoul indicated that in the future it may be more assertive in the face of "provocations" from the North with the office of the country's president, Lee Myung-bak, suggesting the country's rules of engagement could be amended to "respond more actively to regional provocations".
As anger in South Korea over the attack grew, Mr Lee also ordered a strengthening of military forces on islands near a disputed sea border with North Korea, and food aid to Pyongyang was halted.
The firing of about 200 artillery shells by North Korea towards Yeonpyeong on Tuesday killed two military personnel as well as the two civilians, and injured more than a dozen others. The men who were killed were believed to be in their sixties. Scores of houses were set ablaze and photographs from the scene showed buildings gutted by fire and reduced to rubble. South Korea let off about 80 shells in the opposite direction.
This week's exchange of fire represented the first time North Korean missiles had landed on South Korean soil since the Korean War ended, without a peace treaty, in 1953.
North Korea's Red Cross society yesterday issued a statement accusing South Korea of "driving the situation to the brink of war by pursuing its policy of confrontation". It described South Korea's actions as those of "traitors" who will "never be able to escape severe punishment by the nation", China's state-run Xinhua news agency reported.
According to South Korea's Yonhap news agency, during talks by telephone late on Tuesday with Mr Lee, the US president, Barack Obama, said "China should co-operate on relations with North Korea".
Mr Obama told Mr Lee the US stood "shoulder-to-shoulder" with South Korea and the two countries have agreed to hold four days of joint military exercises that will start on Sunday.
Along with the US and South Korea, Japan also said Beijing should ensure North Korea halts aggression towards its southern neighbour.
However, China's Xinhua news agency insisted yesterday "there is still no way to confirm who started the shelling attack". North Korea insisted it was fired upon first.
Yesterday, the United Nations Command called for talks between the militaries of North and South Korea to "initiate an exchange of information and de-escalate the situation".
Seoul promised to act to stabilise financial markets, as the country's main index and its currency fell significantly in the wake of Tuesday's attack.
Joseph Cheng, a professor of political science at the City University of Hong Kong, said further escalation of violence was unlikely, since North Korea was acting provocatively simply to increase its bargaining power in negotiations over its nuclear programme, and South Korea would only return fire. Pyongyang is keen for six-party talks involving China, both Koreas, the US, Japan and Russia to restart.
"I think China will likely send a special envoy to Pyongyang and counsel self-restraint," Prof Cheng said.
Tuesday's shell fire followed weekend revelations about the extent of North Korea's uranium-enrichment programme, after a US scientist was allowed to tour previously secret facilities in what appeared to be a deliberate strategy by Pyongyang to demonstrate its nuclear capabilities.
Following these disclosures, Stephen Bosworth, the US envoy for North Korea, ruled out the resumption of the six-party talks on North Korea's nuclear programme, and on a visit to Beijing yesterday, he urged North Korea to honour its commitment to making the Korean peninsula nuclear-free. North Korea's actions this week, if designed to improve its bargaining position, appear to have "backfired", given the forthright response of the South Korean president, said Nicholas Thomas, the associate head of the Department of Asian and International Studies at the City University of Hong Kong.
"The back story is China's rise as a peaceful partner," he added. "Unless China does show some leadership on this and show some willingness to identify that North Korea acted without provocation, China's own moral position in north-east Asia might be compromised."