A SHARP ESCALATION OF TENSIONS ON THE KOREAN PENINSULA…. If North Korea decided to lash out violently in the hopes of getting the world’s attention, it worked. Kim Jung-il’s regime, unprovoked, shelled South Korea this morning, killing at least two and raising tensions on the peninsula to heights unseen in years.

North and South Korea exchanged artillery fire on Tuesday after dozens of shells fired from the North struck a South Korean island near the countries’ disputed maritime border, South Korean military officials said. Two South Korean soldiers were killed, 15 were wounded and three civilians were injured, said Kiyheon Kwon, an official at the Defense Ministry.

The military went to “crisis status,” and fighter planes were put on alert but did not take off. South Korean artillery units returned fire after the North’s shells struck South Korea’s Yeonpyeong Island at 2:34 p.m., said Mr. Kwon, adding that the North also fired numerous rounds into the Yellow Sea. News reports said dozens of houses were on fire, and TV footage showed large plumes of black smoke spiraling from the island.

North Korea claims South Korea “recklessly fired into our sea area. South Korea, which is holding annual military drills, acknowledged coastal test shots, but insists no artillery crossed the border.

North Korea’s attack was “strongly condemned” by the Obama administration and the British Foreign Secretary. Chinese officials, who were apparently surprised by the developments, said they’re “concerned.”

The escalation also follows closely on the heels of North Korea disclosing new uranium enriching facilities, suggesting the regime is expanding its nuclear arsenal that grew steadily during the Bush/Cheney years.

It also comes less than a year after 46 South Korean sailors were killed after an attack on one of its naval vessels — violence believed to have been launched by North Korea.

South Korea, not surprisingly, considers today’s attack as a significant provocation, and has raised its military alert level.

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Follow Steve on Twitter @stevebenen. Steve Benen is a producer at MSNBC's The Rachel Maddow Show. He was the principal contributor to the Washington Monthly's Political Animal blog from August 2008 until January 2012.