US, S.Korea in show of force as islanders take refuge

The US and South Korean navies staged a potent show of force against North Korea Sunday, as China called for emergency talks about the crisis on the divided peninsula.

Tensions remained high after the North’s deadly bombardment last week.

People on the South Korean border island hit by shells and rockets scurried to bunkers Sunday after hearing explosions — apparently a firing drill miles away on the North’s mainland.

China, the isolated North’s sole major ally, expressed concern at the crisis.

Its top envoy on North Korea, Wu Dawei, proposed “emergency consultations” among delegation chiefs to stalled six-party denuclearisation talks, to be held in Beijing early next month.

Wu, speaking in Beijing, stressed the proposal did not not constitute a formal resumption of the negotiations on dismantling North Korea’s nuclear programmes. But he said he hoped they would lead to such a resumption soon.

There was no immediate official response from Seoul, which is pressing Beijing to be more even-handed in its treatment of the two Koreas.

But President Lee Myung-Bak told visiting State Councillor Dai Bingguo earlier in the day that it was not the time to discuss a full resumption of six-party talks, according to a presidential spokesman.

China has not joined other world powers in criticising the North’s attack, and many South Korean newspapers have angrily urged it to get off the fence.

Lee, in unusually frank comments at his meeting with Dai, urged China to take “a fairer and more responsible stance in its relations with the two Koreas”, the presidential office said.

He added that the South “has tolerated the North’s constant provocations since the (1950-53) Korean War but would respond strongly if the North makes a additional provocation”.

Lee’e ruling party said it was not the time to consider six-party talks.

“For the peace of the Korean peninsula an world peace, China should take a fair and responsible stance and keep in mind that it is an important member of the international community,” it said in a statement.

The defence ministry urged hundreds of journalists to leave Yeonpyeong island, saying the North may use the war games being held far to the south as the pretext for a new attack on it.

The drill, spearheaded by the massive US nuclear-powered aircraft carrier the George Washington, aims to send a message of deterrence to the North but has sparked strong criticism from China.

The exercise, involving at least 11 ships, is one of a series announced in May, after a Seoul-led multinational investigation found overwhelming evidence that a North Korean torpedo had sunk a South Korean warship in March.

That sinking cost 46 lives. But Tuesday’s bombardment of a civilian-populated area, which killed two civilians and two marines and injured 18 people, was the first shelling of a civilian area in the South since the 1950-53 war.

Pyongyang says it shelled the island in retaliation for a South Korean firing drill in what it regards as its own waters around the contested border. It expressed regret Saturday at the civilian deaths but said the South had used them as human shields.

The North “will deal a merciless military counter-attack at any provocative act of intruding into its territorial waters in the future, too,” ruling party newspaper Rodong Sinmun said on Sunday.

“A club is the best thing for a mad dog,” Pyongyang’s official news agency said of the US-South Korean naval drill, echoing the Korean proverb employed by a South Korean newspaper about the North’s regime.

“Aggressors will feel the taste of it… We are ready to respond even to something stronger than anti-submarine ships.”

Yonhap news agency, quoting a government source, said the North had deployed surface-to-air missiles near the border. The defence ministry declined to comment.

Lee, who will make a televised speech on the crisis at 10:00 am Monday (0100 GMT), has come under pressure to take a tougher line after his military’s counter-fire last week was seen as feeble.

The defence minister quit on Thursday to take responsibility.

The United States insists that the drill is defensive in nature and was planned long before the attack, but says it is intended to send a message of deterrence to the North.

It is led by the USS George Washington, which can carry about 75 aircraft on its 1.8 hectare (4.5 acre) flight deck and has a crew of 5,500.

The drill will also involve a high-flying US JSTARS (joint surveillance and target attack system) surveillance aircraft to monitor the North’s military moves, Yonhap reported


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