U.S., South Korea begin military exercises, as China calls for emergency talks on North Korea

By Keith B. Richburg
Sunday, November 28, 2010; 9:15 AM

SEOUL - South Korea and the United States on Sunday began joint naval exercises that will include live fire and bombing drills, as hermetic North Korea deployed missiles close to the Yellow Sea and warned that it will turn the region into "a merciless shower of fire" if its territory is violated.

With tensions high in the region, China on Sunday called for an emergency session in December of the parties to the long-suspended six-way talks over North Korea's nuclear program. But the call for new talks, announced in Beijing at an unusual Sunday afternoon press briefing by Chinese nuclear negotiator Wu Dawei, received a chilly response here in Seoul.

China has been under intense pressure to rein in its often erratic ally, North Korea, and Beijing this weekend was engaged in an intense round of diplomacy -- including sending Beijing's top foreign policy official, Dai Bingguo, to Seoul for meetings -- trying to prevent this current crisis from escalating into a full-scale conflict. The partners to the six party talks are China, Japan, Russia, the two Koreas and the United States.

South Korean officials said the exercises, called in response to the North's deadly artillery barrage last week of civilian-inhabited Yeonpyeong Island, began when the USS George Washington aircraft carrier strike group entered the exercise zone, along with South Korean warships. Officials said the live firing would begin later in the day.

The Naval maneuvers, involving 20 South Korean and American warships, are scheduled to last four days.

Tensions were high Sunday morning as the sound of North Korean artillery briefly led to an emergency evacuation for the remaining two dozen or so civilian residents on Yeonpyeong, though no shells landed on the island. The order came at 11:18 a.m. local time, according to Korea's Yonhap News Agency, quoting an official from South Korea's Joint Chiefs of Staff, and was lifted just before noon.

Yonhap quoted South Korean military sources saying North Korea had deployed Soviet-made SA-2 surface-to-air missiles to its West Coast near the Yellow Sea, and placed longer-range surface missiles on launch pads on the Northwest Coast near the front line. Yonhap said the North had also deployed anti-ship Silkworm and Samlet missiles.

South Korean military officials said the deployments appeared aimed at any American or South Korean aircraft that might cross the "Northern Limit Line," or the Yellow Sea maritime border dividing the two Koreas. North Korea, in a weekend statement, warned that the exercises could bring the region to "the brink of war."

The North Korean regime in Pyongyang also tried over the weekend to blame the United States for sparking the crisis, saying the United States had sought a justification to increase its military presence in the region.

"No sooner had the Yeonpyeong incident occurred than the U.S. announced that it would stage joint naval exercises with the South Korean puppet forces with the nuclear-powered carrier George Washington involved in the West Sea of Korea as if it had been waiting for it to happen," according to a commentary in the official Korean Central News Agency.

"This clearly indicates that the U.S. was the arch-criminal who deliberately planned the incident and wire-pulled it behind the scene," the commentary said, according to a translation by Yonhap.

The war games involving the USS George Washington supercarrier are intended to signal resolve on the part of Washington and Seoul to respond strongly to any future North Korean aggression. The United States and South Korea have said the exercise was long-planned, but no date had been announced until the North's attack on the island, which killed two marines and two civilians and wounded 18 others. "The intensity for the Yellow Sea drills will be higher than planned," a South Korean military official told local media.

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