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China seeks emergency talks on North Korea

US, Seoul begin naval exercise in Yellow Sea

Naval vessels gathered near Yeonpyeong Island yesterday, as the United States and South Korea prepared for war games. Naval vessels gathered near Yeonpyeong Island yesterday, as the United States and South Korea prepared for war games. (David Guttenfelder/ Associated Press)
By Martin Fackler
New York Times / November 29, 2010

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SEOUL — China called yesterday for an emergency meeting of the countries involved in past nuclear weapons talks with North Korea as tensions in the region rose further with the start of US-South Korean naval exercises in the Yellow Sea.

The exercises were meant to send a warning to North Korea after recent provocations, including the deadly artillery attack last week on a Yellow Sea island populated by South Koreans.

The United States and South Korea have been calling on China for days to take firm action to moderate North’s Korea’s behavior. So far, Beijing has declined to rebuke its unruly ally, at least in public. China’s call for the talks did not seem to satisfy South Korea, where the response was lukewarm.

It was unclear whether China was calling for a resumption of the talks on North Korea’s nuclear program or inviting the countries involved in those talks — China, Japan, North Korea, South Korea, Russia, and the United States — to discuss North Korea’s recent actions.

South Korea’s leaders appeared to read the Chinese actions as a call for renewed nuclear talks. A statement from South Korea’s Foreign Ministry suggested that the timing was not yet right for such a meeting, given the recent attack that killed four South Koreans. The statement said China’s proposal “should be examined very carefully.’’

At a hastily called press briefing, China’s Foreign Ministry called for “emergency consultations’’ of the six countries. Vice Foreign Minister Wu Dawei said the meeting should be held in early December in Beijing.

Senator John McCain of Arizona, the ranking Republican on the Armed Services Committee, was openly critical of China, saying that the talks it sought were “a fine first step,’’ but that Beijing needs to bring far greater pressure on Pyongyang.

“The key to all this is China, and, unfortunately, China is not behaving as a responsible world power,’’ McCain said on CNN’s “State of the Union.’’ The Chinese, he said, “could bring the North Korean economy to its knees if they wanted to.’’

“I think it’s time we talk about regime change in North Korea, and I do not mean military action,’’ McCain said, without elaborating.

China made its call for the December talks amid a flurry of diplomacy, including an announcement by Beijing that it had invited a senior North Korean official for talks this week and a meeting yesterday between China’s state counselor in charge of foreign affairs, Dai Bingguo, and President Lee Myung Bak of South Korea.

During the meeting, Lee pressed China to do more for peace in the region, according to the South Korean version of the events. The South Korean president’s office said Lee also asked China to “maintain a more responsible and fair attitude in its policies involving the two Koreas,’’ an apparent prod to put more pressure on North Korea to stop its provocations.

Wu said his colleague’s talks in Seoul had gone well, adding that “China is opposed to all actions that undermine peace and stability on the peninsula.’’

Lee took responsibility today for failing to protect South Koreans from the deadly attack.

“I feel deeply responsible for failing to protect my people’s lives and property,’’ he said, but he vowed that the North would face unspecified consequences for future aggression.

The naval exercises yesterday were intended both to deter further attacks by the North and to signal to China that unless it reins in the North, it may see an even larger US presence in the vicinity.

The announcement last week of the exercises angered both North Korea and China and stirred intense speculation in the South Korean news media about whether the North would respond violently.

After the announcement, China warned against “any military act’’ in its exclusive economic zone without permission, according to the state-run Xinhua news agency. But virtually all the waters to the west of the Korean peninsula fall within that 200-nautical-mile limit. It was not clear if the American-Korean flotilla, which included the US aircraft carrier George Washington, had sailed into that area.

North Korean artillery was heard yesterday by people on the Yellow Sea island, Yeonpyeong, that was attacked Tuesday, though no shells landed there. South Korea considered it just a drill, said a spokesman for South Korea’s Joint Chiefs of Staff.

The weekend flurry of diplomacy followed days of recriminations by both Koreas. On Saturday, North Korea accused South Korea of using civilians as human shields around military bases on the island. The accusation, reported by the North’s official news agency, is apparently an effort to redirect South Korean outrage over the barrage, which killed two civilian construction workers and two South Korean marines.

The bombardment of the island was the first attack on a civilian area in South Korea since the 1950-53 Korean War, and it enraged the South Koreans far more than previous provocations by the North, including its nuclear weapons tests and the sinking in March of a South Korean warship that killed 46 sailors. North Korea denies responsibility for the sinking.

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