YEONPYEONG ISLAND, South Korea – North Korea accused South Korea of using civilians as human shields around artillery positions at an island the North attacked this week, seeking to justify a bombardment that killed four South Koreans and sent tensions soaring.
The comments Saturday came on the eve of U.S.-South Korean war games in the Yellow Sea that have enraged the North and concerned neighboring China, and after the South Korean marine commander vowed revenge at a funeral for two marines killed in the barrage.
Tuesday's attack on Yeonpyeong Island, which houses military bases and tiny fishing communities, also killed two civilians in one of the worst artillery attacks on South Korean territory since the 1950-53 Korean War.
North Korea's state news agency said in a statement that the South should be held responsible because "it took such inhuman action as creating 'a human shield' by deploying civilians around artillery positions."
The North said the South "is now working hard to dramatize 'civilian casualties' as part of its propaganda campaign, creating the impression that the defenseless civilians were exposed to 'indiscriminate shelling' all of a sudden from the" North.
South Korea was conducting artillery drills Tuesday from the island, located just 7 miles (11 kilometers) from North Korea's mainland, but was firing in a direction away from the North.
The North said it told South Korea not to conduct the drills on the morning of the attack, calling the warning "part of its superhuman efforts to prevent the clash to the last moment."
The South Korean commander, Maj. Gen. You Nak-jun, said the South's retaliation would be a "thousand-fold" as dignitaries and relatives laid white flowers at a funeral altar.
As protesters in Seoul demanded their government take sterner action against North Korea, the North issued new warnings against the war games scheduled to start Sunday with a U.S. nuclear-powered aircraft carrier in the Yellow Sea.
The North called the games an "unpardonable provocation" and warning of retaliatory attacks creating a "sea of fire" if its own territory is violated. The comments ran on North Korea's state-run Uriminzokkiri website a day after the North's warnings that the peninsula was on the "brink of war."
China, under pressure from the U.S. and South Korea to rein in its ally Pyongyang, urged both sides to show restraint while Washington played down the belligerent rhetoric, noting that the weekend war games were routine and planned well before last week's attack.
"The pressing task now is to put the situation under control and prevent a recurrence of similar incidents," Chinese Foreign Minister Yang Jiechi told U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton by phone, according to the ministry's website.
The North's artillery fire Tuesday destroyed civilian homes as well as military bases on Yeonpyeong Island in a major escalation of their sporadic skirmishes along the disputed sea border. The attack — eight months after a torpedo sank a South Korean warship, killing 46 sailors — laid bare Seoul's weaknesses in defense 60 years after the Korean War.
North Korea does not recognize the maritime border drawn by the U.N. at the close of the three-year war in 1953, and considers the waters around Yeonpyeong Island, just 7 miles (11 kilometers) from its shores, as its territory.
The heightened animosity between the Koreas comes as the nuclear-armed 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.
Tuesday's attack came days after North Korea revealed a new uranium enrichment program that could improve its ability to make and deliver nuclear weapons, sending the message that new regime is as tough and unpredictable as ever and highlighting the urgency of restarting disarmament talks with the North.
South Korea's government, meanwhile, struggled to recoup from the surprise attacks, firing one defense minister and naming a new one Friday.
About former 70 special forces troops, wearing white head bands, scuffled with riot police in front of the Defense Ministry to protest what they called the government's weak response to the attacks, pummeling the riot troops' helmets with wooden stakes and spraying fire extinguishers.
"Let's go!" the activists shouted.
The police, numbering several hundreds, pushed back with shields. Elsewhere in Seoul several hundred activists held a peaceful, but noisy rally to denounce North Korea.
China's foreign minister met with the North Korean ambassador to Beijing, Chinese state media said — an apparent effort to trumpet China's role as a responsible actor, and placate the U.S. and the South. China has expressed mild concern about the impending war games, in contrast to its strong protests over earlier rounds.
"The Chinese government is trying to send Pyongyang a signal that if they continue to be so provocative, China will just leave the North Koreans to themselves," said Zhu Feng, director of Peking University's Center for International and Strategic Studies.
China is impoverished North Korea's biggest benefactor and one of its only allies.
In Washington, the Pentagon played down any notion that the weekend maneuvers with South Korea — set to include the USS George Washington supercarrier — were a provocation.
"We have exercised there regularly," Capt. Darryn James, a Defense Department spokesman in Washington, said Friday. "And all of these exercises are in international waters."
President Lee Myung-bak also has ordered reinforcements for the 4,000 troops on Yeonpyeong and four other Yellow Sea islands, as well as top-level weaponry and upgraded rules of engagement.
Most of the islanders fled to the mainland after Tuesday's hail of artillery set off fierce blazes that destroyed many of their communities. It will take six months to two years for island communities to rebuild, disaster relief official Kim Sang-ryul said.
Soldiers assembled toilets Saturday for temporary shelters being built on the island by teams of relief workers.
In Seongnam, near Seoul, South Korea's prime minister and marine commander joined some 600 mourners attending the funeral for the two dead marines at a packed gymnasium at a military hospital.
As a brass band played somber music, they placed chrysanthemums — a traditional mourning flower — before framed photographs of the two men, posthumously promoted and awarded medals of valor. One marine's mother pressed her hand to her mouth, and fell forward in her seat in grief.
"Our marine corps ... will carry out a hundred- or thousand-fold" retaliation against North Korea for Tuesday's attack, said You, the marine commander. He did not elaborate.
Passers-by paused at Seoul's main train station to watch funeral footage on a big screen.
"Once the enemy attacks us, it is our duty to respond even more strongly," said student Jeon Hyun-soo, 19. "The South Korean people want this."
Kim Kwang-tae reported from Seoul. AP writers Ian Mader in Seoul, Christopher Bodeen in Beijing and Pauline Jelinek in Washington contributed to this report.