The USS George Washington is taking part in joint US-South Korean military exercises over the next few day in the Yellow Sea. Photograph: Charles Oki/EPA
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Time not right for six-way meeting in Beijing, says Seoul, amid military muscle flexing by North and South Korea.
November 28, 2010 (KATAKAMI / GUARDIAN.CO.UK) — China has called for emergency international talks over North Korea as Pyongyang reportedly prepared missile batteries and the US and South Korea launched joint military exercises.Tensions on the Korean peninsula are as severe as they have been at any time since the end of the Korean war in 1953, and a senior official in Beijing today suggested emergency talks between the six countries that had taken part in talks on Pyongyang’s disarmament.
Wu Dawei, the Chinese envoy to the peninsula, said representatives from Pyongyang and Seoul, China, the US, Russia and Japan, who have been meeting over the last seven years to discuss North Korea’s nuclear ambitions, should convene in Beijing early next month “to exchange views on major issues of concern”.
The talks themselves, moribund for two years after North Korea walked out, look unlikely to be resumed, with Seoul’s presidential office saying it was not the right time for such a move. But such an urgent intervention from China, North Korea’s only significant ally and the sole outside country with any sway over its actions, is significant, not least in underlining the gravity of the situation.
The Seoul-based Yonhap news agency reported that Pyongyang had placed surface-to-surface missiles on launch pads along its Yellow Sea coastline. The North’s military is also aiming surface-to-air missiles at South Korean fighter jets flying near the western sea border, the agency added.
Two South Korean marines and two civilians died on Tuesday when the North unleashed, without warning, an artillery barrage on Yeonpyeong island, which hosts both a military garrison and a small fishing community. The attack, seen as the most serious single military incident since the end of the war, destroyed dozens of homes , injured another 18 people, and set the South on a war footing.
North Korea described the civilian deaths as “regrettable” but blamed the South for placing residents on the island, which Pyongyang insists is North Korean territory, as human shields. The North also condemned a major US-South Korea military drill in the Yellow Sea, which began today.
The four-day exercise, involving the USS George Washington aircraft carrier, is believed to be taking place about 100 miles south of Yeonpyeong. While Seoul insists the exercise is both routine and pre-planned, the North’s National Peace Committee of Korea described it as “pretext for aggression and ignite a war at any cost”.
Pyongyang issued a series of warnings, and threatened to “give a shower of dreadful fire and blow up the bulwark of the enemies if they dare to encroach again upon [North Korea’s] dignity and sovereignty, even in the least.”
Seoul is being almost equally bellicose. At a funeral yesterday for the marines killed on Yeonpyeong, the South Korean military commander, Major-General You Nak-jun, laid flowers at an altar and vowed that his country would retaliate if there was a further attack from the North.
“Our marine corps … will carry out a hundred – or thousand-fold” in retaliation, he said at the ceremony. “We will put our feelings of rage and animosity in our bones and take our revenge on North Korea.”
Dozens of journalists have ignored South Korean military warnings about staying on Yeonpyeong, which is seven miles from North Korean territory. They and locals sought cover today after hearing new bursts of artillery fire. No rounds landed on the island.
Dai Bingguo, a senior Chinese foreign policy adviser, visited South Korea’s president, Lee Myung-bak. In unusually strong comments Lee made plain his concerns that Beijing was not exerting sufficient pressure on North Korea, calling on China to contribute to peace in a “more objective, responsible” manner.
The chairman of North Korea’s supreme people’s assembly, Choe Thae Bok, is due to visit Beijing from Tuesday, China’s official Xinhua news agency said.
Since the Korean war ended, with a truce rather than a formal treaty, tensions between the two sides have risen and receded many times. However, the past year has seen particularly intense pressures, notably after a South Korean warship was sunk in March, killing 46 sailors. An international team of investigators concluded that a North Korean torpedo sank the vessel, although Pyongyang denies any involvement.
The latest crisis has already cost the South Korean defence minister, Kim Tae-young, his job amid accusations that the response to North Korea’s initial attack had been too weak. Now South Korea’s president has sent 4,000 troops as reinforcements to Yeonpyeong and other nearby islands with extra weapons and new rules of engagement that give them greater scope to respond if attacked.