The United States said Friday there would be no justification for North Korea to take military action if South Korea goes ahead with planned artillery exercises in the next few days. Pyongyang is threatening another attack on South Korean territory, more severe than the one it staged after an exercise by its neighbor November 23.
The State Department says it is advising caution on the part of South Korea, given concern about what it terms the "current trajectory" of tensions in the region.
However, it is defending the right of South Korea to conduct military exercises within its own territory, and says there is no justification for the threats Pyongyang has made in recent days.
North Korea, through its official media, is warning that if the South Korean drills go forward, it will hit back harder than it did November 23, when it answered a live-fire exercise with an attack on a South Korean island that killed four people.
South Korea's announced plans for another exercise, sometime between Saturday and Tuesday, has triggered worry in Washington and elsewhere, and a round of diplomatic contacts by concerned governments.
Briefing reporters, State Department Spokesman P.J. Crowley said U.S. officials "certainly trust" that South Korea "will be very cautious" in what it does. But he said it is understandable that the Seoul government wants to assure that its forces are properly trained, given recent North Korean "provocations."
"South Korea has the right to self defense, it has a right to exercise its military as it sees fit," said P.J. Crowley. "Northing that South Korea is planning is in anyway threatening to North Korea, and there's no justification for North Korea taking any action what-so-ever, should South Korea decide to proceed with this scheduled live exercise."
Thursday, Marine General James Cartright, vice chairman of the U.S. military Joint Chiefs of Staff, voiced worry of a potential chain reaction of firing and counter-strikes, if the drill is misunderstood and Pyongyang reacts violently.
Crowley confirmed that U.S. ambassador to Russia, John Beyrle, was called in to the foreign ministry in Moscow to hear a Russian expression of concern about the situation.
Russia said the South Korean ambassador was also summonded, and that Moscow asked that the exercises be shelved.
Meanwhile senior U.S. diplomat for North Korean affairs Sung Kim flew to Seoul to consult after talks with Chinese officials in Beijing led by Deputy Secretary of State James Steinberg.
The United States has been pressing China to use its heavy influence with Pyongyang to restrain North Korea, and Spokesman Crowley called the Beijing meeting Thursday constructive and useful.
According to China's official news agency, the lead Chinese official at the talks, State Councilor Dai Bingguo, said it is urgent that all parties prevent tensions from escalating.