By Chico Harlan
Washington Post Foreign Service
Thursday, December 9, 2010; A10
TOKYO - As North Korea on Wednesday startled Seoul by firing artillery off the peninsula's west coast, the top U.S. military official directed sharp criticism at China for its "tacit approval" of North Korea's recent behavior.
In Seoul to meet with South Korea's top defense officials, Adm. Mike Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, described China's "unique influence" and "unique responsibility" to restrain North Korea, which in recent weeks has shelled a South Korean island and revealed an advanced uranium-enrichment facility.
"The Chinese have enormous influence over the North, influence that no other nation on Earth enjoys," Mullen said. "And yet, despite a shared interest in reducing tensions, they appear unwilling to use it. Even tacit approval of Pyongyang's brazenness leaves all their neighbors asking, 'What will be next?' "
Mullen's message for Beijing exposed the fault line separating the Obama administration and the Chinese. China - North Korea's lone ally and primary benefactor - is pushing for a resumption of six-party talks, the process designed to persuade North Korea to give up its nuclear weapons. But the United States, South Korea and Japan don't feel ready, doubting North Korea's willingness to roll back its nuclear arms ambitions.
On Monday, Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton met in Washington with South Korean Foreign Minister Kim Sung-hwan and Japanese Foreign Minister Seiji Maehara for a show of hand-holding and condemnation of North Korea's provocations.
Two South Korean marines and two civilians were killed Nov. 23 when North Korea launched artillery at Yeonpyeong Island, triggering the latest crisis on the often-tense peninsula. Days earlier, North Korea had revealed to a U.S. nuclear specialist a new facility filled with roughly 2,000 centrifuges. North Korea says the uranium program will be used for energy purposes, but it has the capacity to produce highly enriched uranium and expand Pyongyang's nuclear weapons stock.
The lingering anxiety in the South was reflected Wednesday morning, when its military reported hearing North Korean artillery fire near the maritime border. Though the shells landed in North Korean waters, South Korean financial markets were briefly rattled by the news, recovering only when local television stations attributed the fire to military drills, not an attack.
South Korea has held its own live-fire exercises this week, continuing a show of military readiness that North Korea says threatens a "full-scale war." The United States and South Korea last week conducted joint military drills, with more to come. The Yeonpyeong attack - which prompted the resignation of South Korea's defense minister - caused Seoul to reassess its restrained response to the shelling, with new Defense Minister Kim Kwan-jin vowing airstrikes against North Korea if the South is attacked again.
Still, Mullen on Wednesday called for caution.
"Rather than meet belligerence in kind, you chose to meet it with restraint and resolve and with readiness," Mullen said of South Korea. "The North should not mistake this restraint as a lack of resolve, nor should they interpret it as willingness to accept continued attacks to go unchallenged."