The United States said Thursday South Korean artillery exercises planned for the next few days are routine and appropriate, and that North Korea should not see them as a provocation. The drills, in a coastal area near North Korean waters, are the first since Pyongyang responded to a similar exercise November 23 with a lethal attack on a South Korean island.
U.S. officials concede they are worried about a possible repeat of the November violence, and are stressing in advance that the South Korean exercises are "perfectly legitimate" and routine.
South Korea has announced it will stage maritime artillery drills between Friday and next Tuesday in waters near Yeonpyeong island, which was shelled by North Korea November 23 following a similar South Korean exercise.
Four South Koreans were killed by the shelling, which was the first North Korean attack on a South Korean civilian area since the 1953 Korean armistice.
At the White House, the vice-chairman of the U.S. military joint chiefs of staff, Marine General James Cartwright said there is worry in Washington that North Korea might fire back at South Korean artillery sites and set off a chain reaction of uncontrolled escalation.
Cartwright said the exercise is being held on a well-established and well-used firing range in a transparent way.
There were similar comments here from State Department Spokesman P.J. Crowley who said the planned drill is "perfectly legitimate" and that North Korea should not see it as provocative. "We've been fully briefed on the plan for this exercise. We always stand ready as an ally, and are committed to the defense of South Korea. These are routine exercises. There's nothing provocative or unusual or threatening about these exercises. The North Koreans have been notified about what South Korea plans to do," he said.
South Korea had called off plans for a similar exercise several days ago.
Its latest announcement comes amid intensive diplomacy on the Korean situation.
New Mexico state governor Bill Richardson, a former U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations and diplomatic troubleshooter arrived in Pyongyang on a private mission he said is aimed at easing tensions and bringing North Korea back into nuclear talks.
Meantime, a U.S. teamed headed by Deputy Secretary of State James Steinberg held talks in Beijing with senior Chinese officials, including State Councilor Dai Bingguo who just visited Pyongyang.
Spokesman Crowley said the Obama administration wants China to use its considerable leverage with Pyongyang to cool tension. "Clearly we want China to use all of its influence to make clear to North Korea that these provocations are unwarranted, they do raise tensions and they are opposed to both our interests and China's interest. We have a shared interest here. We want to see peace and stability in the region and we want to make sure that China is using its influence to try to steer North Korea in a different direction," he said.
Crowley meanwhile appeared to dismiss a Japanese report that China has been given, for relay to Pyongyang, a joint list of U.S., South Korean and Japanese terms for the resumption of Chinese-sponsored six-party talks on North Korea's nuclear program.
He said North Korea already knows what it needs to do to restore the stalled dialogue: including ending provocations, improving relations with South Korea, and taking "affirmative steps" to denuclearize under a 2005 joint statement of the six parties.