China reacts gingerly to Korean shootout

China, North Korea's closest ally, so far has avoided any comment on the shootout at the Korean demilitarized zone last weekend and on the defection of a Soviet citizen to South Korea.

In its first few dispatches from the truce village of Panmunjom, the official New China News Agency cited only North Korea's claim that a ''foreign tourist crossed the demarcation line unintentionally'' and was promptly ''kidnapped'' by United States security guards. Three North Korean guards and one South Korean were killed, and one North Korean and one US soldier were wounded, both sides have reported.

The New China News Agency report on Monday's meeting of the Korean Military Armistice Commission to discuss the incident included the US statement that the Soviet man, Vasily Matuzok, had not been kidnapped but had ''defected by his own free will.'' This was the first reference in the Chinese press to defection and the first identification of the person's nationality.

So far, there has been no statement from the Chinese Foreign Ministry on the incident. The government finds itself on sensitive ground when dealing with the two Koreas. China is intent on maintaining good relations with the North and keeping Soviet influence at a minimum.

At the same time, it is moving ever so gingerly to broaden its relations with the South, which it sees as an important economic power in East Asia. Peking has no diplomatic relations with Seoul, but has allowed some unofficial contacts in the past year - including, most recently, a direct telephone link between the two capitals.

On Saturday, Chinese Communist Party General Secretary Hu Yaobang affirmed his view that North Korea was sincere in its desire to open discussions with the South. He did not mention Friday's shootout.

''The dialogue that has already started between North and South Korea will probably encounter some ups and downs, but I believe the trend for dialogue can continue and we must cherish it,'' Mr. Hu told a group of visiting Japanese officials, according to the People's Daily.

Hu was referring to the first-ever trade talks between the two Koreas, which convened a week before the firefight broke out. The two parties had been scheduled to meet again on Dec. 5 at the truce village, but Radio Pyongyang reports that the North Korea wants to postpone the second set of trade talks until next year.

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