YEONPYEONG ISLAND, South Korea — China tried Sunday to defuse tension over a recent North Korean attack on South Korea by proposing an emergency meeting in Beijing, hours after the U.S. and South Korea launched naval war games in a united show of force.
Beijing's top nuclear envoy called for the meeting among the six nations involved in the stalled North Korean nuclear disarmament talks to calm tempers over North Korea's artillery barrage last Tuesday that killed four people on South Korea's front-line island of Yeonpyeong.
Nuclear envoy Wu Dawei said in a statement issued in Beijing that the international community, particularly members of the six-party talks — the two Koreas, Japan, the U.S., China and Russia — were deeply concerned about recent developments. He called for an emergency meeting of chief nuclear negotiations in China in early December.
However, it was unclear whether the proposal would be accepted. Seoul and Washington have resisted restarting the disarmament-for-aid talks until Pyongyang shows a concrete commitment to denuclearization.
South Korea responded cautiously. The Foreign Ministry said in a statement that the proposal should be “reviewed very carefully” and noted that North Korea's recent revelation of a new uranium-enrichment facility has a “negative effect” on efforts to resume the talks. The facility, shown to a visiting Western scientists earlier this month, could signal an expansion of the North's nuclear weapons program.
Japan will closely coordinate with Seoul and Washington in its response to China's proposal, Deputy Chief Cabinet Secretary Tetsuro Fukuyama told reporters in Tokyo.
The troubled relations between the two Koreas, which fought a three-year war in the 1950s, have steadily deteriorated since a conservative government took power in 2008 with a tough new policy toward nuclear-armed North Korea.
Eight months after the deadly sinking of a South Korean warship, North Korean troops showered artillery on Yeonpyeong, a South Korean-held island that houses military bases as well as a civilian population of 1,300, in an attack Tuesday that marked a new level of hostility.
Two South Korean marines and two civilians were killed and 18 others wounded when the North rained artillery on Yeonpyeong in one of the worst assaults since the 1950-53 Korean War. The attack sent residents fleeing into bunkers and reduced dozens of homes on the island to charred rubble.
North Korea blamed the South for provoking the attack by holding artillery drills near the Koreas' maritime border, and has steadily threatened to be “merciless” if war games get too close to its territory.
As U.S. and South Korean ships — including the nuclear-powered USS George Washington — sailed into the waters off Korea's west coast Sunday, China began launching its diplomatic bid to calm tensions.
Washington and Seoul had been pressing China, North Korea's main ally and benefactor, to help defuse the situation amid fears of all-out war. China was slow at first to react after ally North Korea pummeled a South Korean island with an artillery barrage on Tuesday, but has quickened its diplomatic intervention in recent days.
Chinese state councilor Dai Bingguo made a last-minute visit to Seoul to confer with South Korean President Lee Myung-bak.
Lee pressured Dai, a senior foreign policy adviser, to contribute to peace in a “more objective, responsible” matter, and warned Sunday that Seoul would respond “strongly” to any further provocation, Lee's office said in a statement.
The strong words were Lee's first public comment in days. He was due to address the nation Monday morning amid calls from his people to take tougher action against the defiant North.
North Korea walked away from the disarmament-for-aid talks in April 2009 following international condemnation for launching a rocket seen as a test of its long-range missile technology.
Pyongyang, with Beijing's backing, has shown an eagerness to get back to the talks, and has appeared increasingly frustrated by U.S. and South Korean reluctance to restart the negotiations to provide the North with much-needed aid in exchange for disarmament.
North Korea, which cites the U.S. military presence in South Korea as a main reason behind its drive to build atomic weapons, routinely calls their joint exercises between the allies a rehearsal for war.
Washington, which keeps 28,500 troops in South Korea to protect the ally, insists the drills are routine and were planned well before last Tuesday's attack.
U.S. and South Korean ships got into position in the Yellow Sea on Sunday for the four-day exercise, said Cmdr. Jeff Davis, spokesman for the 7th Fleet in Yokosuka, Japan.
He said no live-fire drills were planned. Officials would not supply exact locations but Yonhap said the drills were taking place about 100 miles (160 kilometers) south of Yeonpyeong Island.
North Korea expressed outrage over the Yellow Sea drills and threatened “merciless counter-military strikes.”
The war games are a “pretext for aggression and ignite a war at any cost,” the National Peace Committee of Korea said in a statement carried by the official Korean Central News Agency, warning that the U.S. and South Korea “will be wholly held accountable.”
Hours earlier, the rattle of new artillery fire from North Korea sent residents, journalists, police and troops on a front-line island scrambling for cover. None of the rounds landed on Yeonpyeong Island, military officials said, but the incident showed how tense the situation remains.
Saying they could not guarantee the journalists' safety, South Korea's Defense Ministry urged the media to leave the island and sent a ship to ferry them off. However, bad weather forced them to cancel the evacuation.
About 380 people, including 28 islanders and 190 journalists, were left on the island Sunday, according to Incheon city government officials who govern the island.
A similar burst of artillery fire Friday occurred just as the U.S. military's top commander in the region, Gen. Walter Sharp, was touring Yeonpyeong Island. No shells landed anywhere in South Korean territory.
In Seoul, as monks chanted their morning prayers at Jogye Temple, Shim Jeong-wook, 74, said he didn't think North Korea would attack again, not with a U.S. aircraft carrier group in South Korean waters.
“I don't think North Korea will provoke while the U.S. Navy fleet is in the Yellow Sea,” he said. “But who knows what will happen when it leaves?”