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December 17, 2010

China Steps Up Pressure on Koreas

China stepped up pressure on North and South Korea Saturday to exercise self-restraint to ease what it says are "extremely precarious" tensions on the Korean peninsula.

China summoned ambassadors from the two countries to voice its concerns about South Korean plans for live-fire artillery drills from an island the North shelled last month, and the North's vow to strike back even harder than it did last month if the South carries out the exercises.

South Korea delayed the drills on Yeonpyeong Island on Saturday because of bad weather, but a military official said it still expects to stage them on Monday or Tuesday. He said South Korea has a "right to conduct" its military drills.

China, North Korea's chief ally, said it was "firmly and unambiguously opposed" to any actions that would escalate tensions in the region. China's state news agency Xinhua quoted Vice Foreign Minister Zhang Zhijun as saying that "bloodshed and conflicts" would lead to a "national tragedy of fratricide" between the two Koreas.

North Korea has accused the United States of creating a "human shield" for the South Korean exercises by sending 20 U.S. soldiers to assist in the drills. North Korea said the Korean peninsula will "explode" if the training drills are carried out.

The United States says that South Korea has a right to conduct the drill. Russia has voiced "extreme concern" over the exercises and called for a Saturday afternoon meeting of the 15-member UN Security Council to discuss the situation.

South Korean marines carrying rifles conducted routine patrols on Saturday on the island, located 11 kilometers off the North Korean shoreline. But no warnings have been issued for residents to evacuate.

Several bloody naval skirmishes have occurred in recent years along the western sea border. But North Korea's November 23 assault on Yeonpyeong was the first by the North targeting a civilian area since the end of the 1950-53 Korean War. The North does not recognize the sea border in the region drawn by the United Nations.

Four people were killed on Yeonpyeong in last month's incident, including two civilians.

The governor of the U.S. state of New Mexico, Bill Richardson, is visiting Pyongyang on a private mission to try to ease tensions on the Korean peninsula.  He says the situation is a "tinderbox."

The CNN cable news network says the veteran negotiator and former ambassador to the United Nations on Saturday provided the North Koreans with an undisclosed set of proposals aimed at quelling the situation. The network said it was unknown how the North Koreans responded.

U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-moon urged North Korea to show restraint and called on both Koreas to reduce tensions.
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Some information for this report was provided by AP, AFP and Reuters.