South Koreans are anxiously waiting to see if North Korea will make good on its threat to take military action in response to an artillery drill on Yeonpyeong island. The exercise came just hours after an emergency meeting of the United Nations Security Council failed to ease tensions, and after an American politician said North Korea is willing to accept nuclear inspections.
South Korea defied diplomatic pressure and went ahead Monday with firing artillery into the Yellow Sea for 94 minutes, escalating its confrontation with the communist North.
Defense officials stress the shelling was to the southwest, away from North Korea. But North Korea claims that area is its territory and, in the days since the drill was announced, has warned it could lead to war.
In Seoul, Foreign Ministry spokesman Kim Young-sun termed the live-fire exercise routine and legitimate.
Kim says the artillery drill is for self-defense and part of the country's sovereign right.
A few hours before the exercise, the United Nations Security Council failed to reach a consensus on lowering tensions on the Korean peninsula.
Diplomats say China, among other nations, would not back a statement condemning North Korea for recent aggressive behavior, including the shelling of Yeonpyeong island last month.
After the U.N. talks failed, U.S. Ambassador Susan Rice defended South Korea's decision to go ahead with the artillery drill. She noted the two fatal attacks this year blamed on North Korea - the sinking in March of a South Korean navy ship and last month's shelling of Yeonpyeong island.
"If the events of the last year have shown anything it is that the Republic of Korea has every need and right to ready its self defense having lost 50 citizens simply over the course of the last nine months," said Rice.
A Chinese vice foreign minister on Monday renewed his country's call for more talks and said no one has the right to provoke conflict on the Korean peninsula.
Also Monday, a veteran American diplomatic troubleshooter wrapped up a trip to Pyongyang. He was quoted by the CNN news network as saying the North Koreans have agreed to allow U.N. nuclear inspectors back into the country.
Former ambassador Bill Richardson (the governor of New Mexico) was quoted as saying the North Koreans also agreed to negotiate the sale of 12,000 fresh fuel rods so they could be shipped out of the country.
For seven years, the United States, China, Russia, Japan and South Korea have tried to persuade North Korea to give up its nuclear weapons programs in return for aid and greater diplomatic recognition. Despite agreeing to do so, Pyongyang has tested nuclear weapons and recently revealed a new fuel production facility.
Members of South Korea's political opposition unsuccessfully appealed to President Lee Myung-bak to cancel Monday's artillery training.
Democratic Party lawmaker Chung Dong-Young is a former cabinet minister who previously negotiated with North Korean leader Kim Jong Il.
"It['s] irresponsible of the president if he panders to the tastes of the conservative forces," he said. "The president should be responsible if the artillery fire from Yeonpyeong island brings another dangerous exchange of fire, which might go out of control."
Last month, conservatives criticized the president for not responding forcefully to the North Korean attack, which killed four South Koreans.
In the early 1950's, the two Koreas fought a three-year year. A truce has been in place since 1953, but no peace treaty has been signed.