The United States and South Korea were finishing up war manoeuvres on Wednesday aimed at North Korea after a deadly attack and discussing whether to hold more, as China tried to restart the aid-for-nuclear-disarmament talks coveted by the North.
Beijing is pressing for an emergency meeting in coming days to discuss ways to ease tensions embroiling the region after the North Korean artillery attack on a front-line island that killed four South Koreans and wounded 18 others on Nov. 23. But Washington, Tokyo and Seoul are wary of talking with the North.
Beijing wants talks among the six nations who have negotiated over North Korea’s nuclear program -- the two Koreas, China, Russia, Japan and the United States. After walking away from the six-nation talks in April 2009, Pyongyang has shown it is now eager to restart them to gain much-needed fuel oil and aid in exchange for nuclear disarmament.
Seoul has reacted coolly, saying North Korea must show real commitment to disarm and noting that the North has gone in the wrong direction with its revelation late last month of a new uranium enrichment facility that would give North Korea a second way to make nuclear bombs.
South Korea’s drills with the U.S. involving a nuclear-powered super carrier in western waters south of the disputed border were set to end Wednesday. The drills were largely aimed at testing communications systems and didn’t have live fire, but North Korea expressed its fury over them.
A South Korean Joint Chiefs of Staff officer said that Seoul and Washington are discussing whether to conduct new joint military drills this month or early next month. The officer, speaking on condition of anonymity, citing agency rules, would only say that the drills would take place off South Korea’s west coast.
South Korea’s military separately plans what it calls routine weeklong naval live-fire exercises from 29 sites next week. Similar naval firing drills will follow in coming weeks, but Yeonpyeong Island and other front-line islands have not been immediately designated as firing sites, the officer said.
Tokyo and Washington have backed Seoul in its cool response to China’s proposal for emergency talks, and the three powers arranged to meet in Washington -- rather than Beijing -- next week to discuss North Korea in a move that clearly underlined the fault line in the “six-party” negotiations.
U.S. officials said Washington was ruling out the six-party talks for the time being. The United States wants “China to urge North Korea to stop the destabilization,” White House spokesman Robert Gibbs said. “But I think there has to be seriousness on the part of the North Koreans to get back to these talks.”
Japan, too, rejected an immediate round of aid-for-disarmament talks, but sent its envoy to the North Korean nuclear discussions to China.
China, belatedly waking up to its role as North Korea’s mentor, invited high-ranking North Korean official Choe Thae Bok, an aide to leader Kim Jong Il, to Beijing for talks. Kyodo reported from the Chinese capital that State Councilor Dai Bingguo was to visit North Korea, possibly on Wednesday, to urge North Korea to join the emergency meeting. The agency cited unnamed diplomatic sources.
A Russian nuclear negotiator, Grigory Logvinov, was to visit South Korea on Wednesday to discuss stalled nuclear disarmament negotiations, the North’s artillery barrage and other issues, according South Korea’s Foreign Ministry.