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.
The North also seemed to offer an apology of sorts for the two civilian deaths, saying, "If that is true, it is very regrettable." But the North blamed the South for the deaths, saying Seoul used civilians as "human shields" around military positions on the island.
After several inconclusive rounds from 2003 through 2007, the six-party talks were discontinued in April, 2009, after North Korea defied international warnings and test-launched its Taepodong-2 missile, and the U.N. Security Council responded with a threat to impose tougher sanctions on North Korea's leadership.
Pyongyang at the time angrily vowed to never again take part in the six-party talks again, which linked ending North Korea's nuclear program with food and economic aid. So it was unclear today whether China had used its influence to change North Korea's view -- or if the U.S., Korea or Japan could be convinced to return to negotiations. U.S. and South Korean officials have said North Korea should not be rewarded with talks for its aggressive actions.
The Obama administration had as recently as last week said the talks could not resume until North Korea ended work on a newly-revealed, highly-sophisticated uranium enrichment facility.
Korean officials Sunday also seemed cautious to China's call, with the foreign ministry in Seoul saying only, in a statement, "our government will take note of China's proposal" -- a statement South Korean media interpreted that statement as a rejection. Also, Yonhap news agency reported that South Korean President Lee Myung-bak told China's Dai Bingguo that now was not the time to resume talks with the North.
Wu Dawei, the Chinese negotiator, said in Beijing he was not proposing a resumption of the six-party talks, but an emergency meeting of the six chief delegates to the talks. "Although this does not mean the resumption of the six-party talks, we hope it can help create the conditions for the resumption of the six-party talks," Wu said.
Washington Post special correspondent Yoongjung Seo in Seoul contributed to this report.