China seeks six-party talks on Korea; naval drills start (Roundup)

Sunday, November 28, 2010

SEOUL - Tensions remained high on the Korean Peninsula in the wake of the artillery duel between North and South Korea, amid signs that China was gearing up its diplomacy to try to ease the atmosphere.

South Korean and US forces Sunday went ahead with major naval manoeuvres in the Yellow Sea, adding to the security jitters in the region after the artillery exchange which left four South Koreans dead on Yeonpyeong Island near the two countries’ disputed maritime border.

Amid the tensions, China sent a diplomat to Seoul to meet with top South Korean leaders, and also on Sunday proposed an emergency meeting of six-party talks in early December.

Special envoy for Korea Wu Dawei told journalists that Beijing was proposing that chief negotiators from North and South Korea, the US, China, Japan and Russia should meet early December in Beijing.

But he made it clear that the talks would not be a resumption of the six-party dialogue, focussed on the dismantling of North Korea’s nuclear programme, which stalled in April 2009.

Soon after the proposal, Seoul reacted coolly to the idea, with the foreign ministry saying it had to be examined “very carefully” and blaming Pyongyang for a series of provocations which had impacted negatively on the region.

Before such talks could resume, Pyongyang had to undertake concrete steps towards dismantling its nuclear programme, Seoul said.

“We again urge North Korea to show its denuclearization willingness through action,” the ministry said.

Previously in Seoul, South Korean President Lee Myung-bak asked China to take a “fair and responsible” attitude toward aggressive actions by North Korea that have heightened the risk of war.

Lee conveyed the message to Chinese State Councilor Dai Bingguo, who arrived in Seoul as a special envoy of President Hu Jintao and Premier Wen Jiabao, Yonhap News Agency reported.

Lee requested that “China act in a fairer and more responsible way in dealing with South-North Korea relations and contribute to peace on the Korean Peninsula”, presidential spokesman Hong Sang-pyo said.

Dai expressed condolences from China’s leaders over the loss of lives in the North’s attack on Yeonpyeong Nov 23.

China has stopped short of condemning the North’s attack, and instead accused Washington and Seoul of provoking tensions with the joint exercises. But Beijing was also working behind the scenes to defuse the situation.

Yonhap said that while China has by far the most political and economic leverage over its communist ally, some analysts see Beijing’s influence waning as Pyongyang takes increasing harder nuclear and military positions.

In a related development, Chinese state media said a senior North Korean official would visit China Tuesday.

Choe Tae Bok, chairman of North Korea’s Supreme People’s Assembly, will make the five-day visit at the invitation of Wu Bangguo, chairman of China’s legislature, Xinhua news agency reported.

Amid the overall jitters, South Korea’s military briefly ordered civilians on a border island into bomb shelters after hearing sounds of artillery from the North.

The military lifted the emergency order on Yeonpyeong after determining that the sounds came from a training ground in North Korea, rather than from coastline batteries, Yonhap reported.

Yonhap reported that North Korea also deployed surface-to-air missiles to its west coast as the US-South Korean naval exercises got underway.

“(The missiles) appear to be targeting our fighter jets that fly near the Northern Limit Line,” the agency quoted a source who requested anonymity, referring to the maritime border.

Most of the 1,700 residents have left the island, but about two dozen civilians remained, Yonhap said.

South Korea’s military general staff said that the joint four-day exercises were intended to send a strong signal to communist North Korea to back down.

Ten warships are taking part, including the nuclear-powered aircraft carrier USS George Washington.

The manoeuvres are taking place away from the disputed maritime border between South and North Korea, in an area near the coastal city of Taean, about 150 km south of Seoul.

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