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South Korea dials back tough talk over Cheonan sinking

One day after China refused to take a stand against North Korea over the March 26 sinking of South Korea's naval ship, Cheonan, South Korea appears to be moderating its rhetoric against the North over the sinking.

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Tensions toward North Korea appeared to have decreased somewhat even as US and South Korean military officers planned for military war games and several thousand South Korean troops staged an exercise south of the demilitarized zone that has divided the Korean peninsula since the Korean War ended in July 1953. Defense officials insisted the exercise, involving about 50 tanks supported by helicopters and artillery, was routine, previously scheduled, and had nothing to do with current standoff.

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One major factor in South Korea’s slow movement toward a more moderate position appeared to have been talks on Sunday among the prime ministers of South Korea, China, and Japan.

The China factor

Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao avoided any expression of support for South Korea but made clear China’s desire for thwarting any moves toward a second Korean War.

Mr. Wen promised “proactive efforts for closer communication” among all those involved in the Korean peninsula and would deal with the Cheonan issue “in a direction that promotes peace and stability of the Northeast Asian region.”

Those comments were wide of the goal set by South Korea and the US for persuading China to join in statements of condemnation of North Korea.

South Korea on May 20 released the results of an international investigation that showed that a North Korean midget submarine had fired the torpedo that tore the Cheonan in two parts and sank it within a minute or two in disputed waters in the Yellow Sea.

Nonetheless, President Lee gave every appearance of welcoming Wen’s remarks. He and the Japanese prime minister, Yukio Hatoyama, who offered unreserved support for the results of the investigation, appeared smilingly in photographs with Wen as the conference wound up Sunday on the island of Jeju, off the southern end of the Korean peninsula.

At the Unification Ministry, Mr. Um repeated South Korean demands for a North Korean “apology” and “punishment” for those who ordered the attack.

Um appeared undeterred when reminded how unlikely it seems for North Korea ever to go along with such demands. “We should make abnormal inter-Korean relations normal,” he said. “We are in the process. The possibility might be 50-50.”

Mr. Choi offered one substantive reason for hope.

He said South Korean factory managers at the economic complex had told him the North Koreans were working harder.

“They are more committed to their work,’” he said. “That’s because they want to maintain this industrial complex.”