China sought to defuse tensions on the Korean peninsula Sunday on the first day of massive US and South Korean exercises in the Yellow Sea led by the United States aircraft carrier George Washington, with 80 planes on its decks.
The exercises were about 50 miles south of the scene of North Korea’s attack last week on tiny Yeonpyeong Island in which two South Korean marines and two civilians were killed -- and far out of North Korean artillery range.
The show of force, however, created enough of a sense of crisis to push China to call for emergency talks.
In Beijing, China's nuclear negotiator, Wu Dawei, said “the Chinese side, after careful studies, proposes emergency consultations among the nuclear envoys in early December in Beijing to exchange views on major issues of concern."
After meeting with China’s state councillor, Dai Bingguo, for two hours, South Korean President Lee Myung-bak said through a spokesman that now was “not an appropriate time” for such a discussion. Then, after news reports had Mr. Lee summarily rejecting the idea, Lee’s office issued a qualifying statement promising to give it “careful consideration.”
At the same time, China’s Xinhua News Agency said that a top North Korean official, Choe Tae-bok, secretary of North Korea’s Workers’ Party, would go to Beijing this week. China is expected to stress the fact that its economic aid keeps the crumbling North Korean state on life support while suggesting the North Koreans refrain from more attacks.
Satellite imagery reveals North Korean weapons
The crisis atmosphere intensified, however, with reports that satellite imagery had revealed that North Korean forces had 122-millimeter rocket systems ready for firing and surface-to-air missiles on launch pads near the North Korean shoreline.
“Tension is getting high, and people are afraid of possible conflict,” says Choi Jin-wook, a longtime analyst of North Korea for the Korea Institute of National Unification. “China doesn’t want any tension. China has probably said something to North Korea.”
On Yeonpyeong Island, eight miles below the North Korean coast, the sound of occasional artillery bursts Sunday was enough for defense officials to send everyone scurrying briefly into shelters. By the end of the day, officials ordered the evacuation of all civilians, notably more than 100 journalists who had been there for two days after all ferries were canceled due to heavy seas.
North Korea lashes out
China’s carefully calculated suggestion for talks, however, contrasted with increasingly virulent tirades from Pyongyang, which promised to “deliver a brutal military blow on any provocation that violates our territorial waters.”
The Korean peninsula, said one statement, was already in an “ultraemergency” as a result of “the madcap aggression war exercises” by the Americans and South Koreans “in the sea and the sky.”
The Yellow Sea, said the statement, was "the most acute and sensitive area where military conflict might break out any time.”
Such statements created little alarm among South Koreans, long accustomed to North Korean rhetoric.
A South Korean engineer, Choi Tae-hyun, observed, however, that negotiations might serve a certain purpose since “North Korea will not do anything as long as talks are going on.”