Heightened Diplomacy Before US-South Korean War Exercises
Heightened Diplomacy Before US-South Korean War Exercises

The United States and South Korea are continuing to prepare for military exercises in the Yellow Sea, despite warnings from North Korea. Chinese diplomats are trying to ease tensions in the region after North Korea shelled a South Korean island.  

The U.S. and South Korea are to begin their long-planned war games on Sunday, including the nuclear-powered aircraft carrier USS George Washington.

The drills are to take place less than a week after a North Korean artillery bombardment of the small South Korean island of Yeonpyeong killed two civilians and two marines.

North Korea Saturday charged that the South used the civilians on the island as human shields. State-run media also called the joint military exercises "saber-rattling," and warned that they are inching the Korean Peninsula closer to the brink of war.

In another statement, Pyongyang's official Korean Central News Agency said, if there were civilian deaths in the shelling, they were "very regrettable."

South Korea, meanwhile, has escalated its rhetoric against the North.  During a nationally-broadcast funeral for the two marines killed in Tuesday's attack, marine commander Lieutenant General Yoo Nak-joon vowed a "thousand-fold" retaliation against the North.

In an effort to ease the tensions, China Saturday sent two top officials to Seoul to meet with the South Korean foreign minister.  South Korea's Yonhap news agency reports that they discussed Tuesday's attack and international talks on ending North Korea's nuclear programs.  

Chinese Foreign Minister Yang Jiechi also called his Russian counterpart, Sergei Lavrov, for consultations.

China has also criticized the U.S.-South Korean military exercises.  Beijing says it opposes any "unilateral military act" in the region without its permission.

U.S. President Barack Obama and the leaders of Japan and South Korea have urged China to use its influence with North Korea to resolve the conflict.

The chairman of the U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff, Admiral Mike Mullen, has told CNN that China, as North Korea's main ally, has as much at stake as anyone if the region is destabilized.

Mullen says the U.S. is trying to prevent the incident from escalating into a more significant conflict.

U.S. officials have called the shelling an "outrageous act" and a violation of the 1953 armistice, but have said they do not believe Pyongyang is preparing for an extended military campaign.

In Seoul, about 70 former special forces troops protested what they called the government's weak response.  They scuffled with riot police in front of the Defense Ministry, bashing police helmets with wooden stakes and spraying fire extinguishers.

South Korean President Lee Myung-bak replaced his defense minister on Friday.