YEONPYEONG ISLAND, South Korea – A senior U.S. military official headed Friday to this small island devastated by a North Korean artillery barrage to show solidarity with ally South Korea and assess damage from an attack that has the region edge.
The visit by Gen. Walter Sharp, the U.S. military commander in South Korea, comes two days ahead of joint military drills between Seoul and Washington that will include a nuclear-powered U.S. aircraft carrier in waters south of this week's skirmish.
North Korea claims waters near this island, which is just seven miles (11 kilometers) from the North, and the vist by Sharp coupled with the coming carrier drills are certain to keep tensions high between the rival Koreas.
Four South Koreans — two marines and two civilians — were killed in the hour-long skirmish Tuesday when North Korea unleashed a hail of artillery on the Yeonpyeong, but the island was quiet Friday morning, with most residents having evacuated to the mainland.
Marines with M-16 rifles patrolled a seawall, while others gazed toward North Korea from a guard post on a cliff. Technicians worked to restore communication lines. Several stray hogs growled near destroyed houses.
South Korean President Lee Myung-bak has ordered reinforcements for about 4,000 troops on Yeonpyeong and four other Yellow Sea islands, as well as top-level weaponry for the soldiers and upgraded rules of engagement that would create a new category of response when civilian areas are targeted.
He also sacked his defense minister amid intense criticism over lapses in the country's response to the attack.
In scenes reminiscent of the Korean War 60 years ago, dazed residents of Yeonpyeong island foraged through blackened rubble for pieces of their lives and lugged their possessions down eerily deserted streets strewn with bent metal after Tuesday's barrage darkened skies and set off fierce blazes.
"It was a sea of fire," resident Lee In-ku said Thursday, recalling the flames that rolled through the streets of this island that is home to military bases as well as a fishing community famous for its catches of crab. The spit of land had only six pieces of artillery.