YEONPYEONG ISLAND, South Korea — North Korea warned Friday that planned U.S.-South Korean military drills are pushing the peninsula to the brink of war as a U.S. military commander headed to an island devastated this week by a North Korean artillery barrage.
North Korea's state news agency said drills this weekend involving South Korean forces and a U.S. nuclear powered supercarrier in waters south of Tuesday's skirmish between the rival Koreas are a reckless plan by "trigger-happy elements" and that the maneuvers target the North.
"The situation on the Korean peninsula is inching closer to the brink of war," the dispatch from the Korean Central News Agency said.
The comments came ahead of a planned visit Friday by Gen. Walter Sharp, the U.S. military commander in South Korea, to the island targeted by the North Korean attack to show solidarity with ally Seoul.
Four South Koreans – two marines and two civilians – were killed in the hour-long skirmish Tuesday after 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 dogs growled near destroyed houses.
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 son Kim Jong Un, who is in his late 20s and is expected to eventually succeed his ailing father.
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 this week have foraged through blackened rubble for pieces of their lives and lugged their possessions down eerily deserted streets strewn with bent metal.
"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.
North Korea blamed South Korean drills this week as the motivation behind its attack – but Lee said the South could not afford to abandon such preparation now.
"We should not ease our sense of crisis in preparation for the possibility of another provocation by North Korea," spokesman Hong Sang-pyo quoted President Lee Myung-bak as saying. "A provocation like this can recur any time."
Washington and Seoul also ratcheted up pressure on China, North Korea's main ally and biggest benefactor, to restrain Pyongyang.
Without criticizing the North, Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao responded by calling on all sides to show "maximum restraint" and pushed again to restart the six-nation talks aimed at persuading North Korea to dismantle its nuclear programs in exchange for aid. Foreign Minister Yang Jiechi, meanwhile, canceled a trip to Seoul this week.
On Thursday, Lee accepted Defense Minister Kim Tae-young's offer to resign after lawmakers criticized the government, claiming officials were unprepared for the attack and that the military response was too slow.
Skirmishes between the Korean militaries are not uncommon, but North Korea's heavy bombardment of Yeonpyeong Island took hostilities to a new level because civilians were killed.
South Korean troops returned fire and scrambled fighter jets in response. Two South Korean marines and two construction workers were killed and at least 18 others wounded. South Korea has said casualties on the North Korean side were likely significant, but none were immediately reported by the country.
Marine Lt. Col. Joo Jong-wha acknowledged that the island is acutely short of artillery, saying it has only six pieces: the howitzers used in Tuesday's skirmish.
"In artillery, you're supposed to move on after firing to mask your location so that they don't strike right back at you," he told reporters. "But we have too few artillery."
On Yeonpyeong, some spoke of walls of flame, surreal images of blackened skies, massive dust clouds, orange-colored lightning.
"My town was almost burned out," said Noh Myung-san, 56, who was planting trees near a mountain when he heard artillery explosions. "I thought it was an earthquake."
Islanders walked gingerly over potholes and past electric poles pockmarked by artillery shells. Blackened beer bottles lay outside what's left of a supermarket. Coast guard officers patrolled the streets in pairs.
Though North Korea regularly threatens to rain munitions down on its rival, the two Koreas are required to abide by an armistice signed in 1953 at the end of their three-year war.
North Korea does not recognize the maritime line drawn by U.N. forces and blamed South Korean military maneuvers near Yeonpyeong Island this week for the clash, calling them a violation of its territory.
The disputed waters have been the site of three other deadly naval skirmishes since 1999. However, the most costly incident was the sinking of a South Korean warship eight months ago that killed 46 sailors in the worst attack on South Korea's military since the war.
Seoul resident Cheong Hyung-yong, 77, blamed the government for reacting with too little, too late.
"If only I was young, if only I could fight against the North Koreans," he said. "I wish I could punish the North Koreans right now."
Foster Klug reported from Seoul. Kwang-tae Kim, Seulki Kim, Kelly Olsen, Ian Mader and Jean H. Lee in Seoul also contributed to this report.