By Chico Harlan
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, December 19, 2010; 10:21 PM
SEOUL - South Korea plans to conduct its live-fire drills on Yeonpyeong Island on Monday, despite North Korean threats of retaliation and mounting international efforts to prevent an intra-peninsular showdown.
South Korean military officials on Sunday reiterated their intention to hold the drills, setting up a potential crisis that the U.N. Security Council was unable to resolve during a closed-door emergency meeting that lasted more than eight hours Sunday evening. North Korea has said that if Seoul goes ahead with the artillery drills on Yeonpyeong Island - seven miles from the North Korean coast - it will lead to "catastrophe."
With the drills soon to be conducted, barring a last-minute cancellation, South Korea has taken emergency preparations, equipping a fleet of fighter jets with air-to-surface missiles that can strike the North Korean coast if Pyongyang follows through on its threat to unleash "unpredictable self-defensive blows." On Yeonpyeong Island, the few remaining residents have been instructed to take cover in air raid shelters.
A Russian effort to persuade South Korea to halt plans to conduct military exercises and to launch a U.N. mediation effort collapsed Sunday after the 15-nation council was unable to reach agreement on a Russian draft proposal that called for those initiatives.
The United States, which has the presidency of the council this month, insisted that any statement include a clear condemnation of North Korea's Nov. 23 attack on Yeonpyeong, which left four South Korean nationals dead, and recall the torpedoing of the South Korean naval vessel the Cheonan. U.S. officials said China blocked language condemning North Korea, or allowing even a mention of the island.
Russia's U.N. Ambassador Vitaly I. Churkin said that he had made a personal appeal during the meeting to the South Korean delegation "to refrain from conducting the [military] exercise at this particular time. He also expressed frustration that council was unable to reach agreement on a statement that sent the same message, "We reiterated our calls for restrain on both parties, in no uncertain times," he said. "We were not successful in bridging all the bridges."
Seoul drew fierce domestic criticism for its feeble response to North Korea's Nov. 23 shelling of Yeonpyeong Island, an attack that killed two marines and two civilians. Since then South Korea has replaced its defense minister and increased its aggressive rhetoric, vowing airstrikes if Pyongyang attacks again.
The State Department has defended Seoul's right to hold the drills, and about 20 U.S. military members will take part in the live-fire drill. But China has spoken out against the drills, with Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Jiang Yu urging "dialogue rather than confrontation."
"As China has repeatedly stressed, if conflict and bloodshed happen on the Peninsula, the first to suffer would be people on both sides of the Peninsula," Jiang said, in remarks posted Sunday on China's Foreign Ministry Web site. "It will also certainly undermine peace and stability in the region and affect neighboring countries."
Given the tension, analysts fear that a slight miscalculation in Seoul or Pyongyang could lead to war. New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson (D), in the middle of a four-day trip to Pyongyang, has fashioned himself as a private peacekeeper, and on Sunday he met with North Korean Maj. Gen. Pak Rim Su, who advises on the policy of the powerful National Defense Commission.
According to Richardson, speaking in an interview with CNN, he offered Pak two suggestions: He recommended a military-to-military hotline between North and South Korea, and he proposed a military commission featuring representatives from Seoul, Pyongyang and Washington. Richardson said Pak seemed "very open" to the ideas.
"I urged the general to listen to the United Nations Security Council when it meets on Sunday," Richardson said. "Hopefully they will exercise restraint. And that will be an opportunity for North Korea to cool down, to tamp down - for all sides to tamp down."
South Korea, if it goes ahead with the live-fire drills, promises to fire south - away from North Korean territory. But North Korea considers the waters around Yeonpyeong Island as its own, and disputes legitimacy of the Northern Limit Line that serves as a maritime border in the Yellow Sea.
Staff writer Colum Lynch in New York contributed to this report.