U.S., South Korea kick off naval exercises
SEOUL–A joint naval exercise involving a U.S. aircraft carrier group and South Korean naval vessels kicked off Sunday in the Yellow Sea off South Korea as diplomatic efforts to ease tensions continued following North Korea’s deadly artillery barrage last week.
Wu Dawei, Beijing’s special envoy on Korean peninsula affairs, told an abruptly arranged news conference Sunday that the Chinese government has proposed holding a meeting of the chief representatives to the six-party talks in early December.
The nuclear-powered carrier George Washington along with five other warships rendezvoused with six South Korean ships off the southwestern part of the Korean Peninsula, sources said.
While officials claimed that the drill had been planned before the Nov. 23 shelling of Daeyeonpyeongdo island which killed two civilians and two marines, the exercises were designed to thwart a naval intrusion by North Korean forces.
The exercise area was believed to be more than 160 kilometers south of the Northern Limit Line (NLL), the maritime border between North and South Korea.
As of Sunday afternoon no reports of any irregular activity in North Korea had been reported.
Wu said the December meeting, which would bring together envoys from the United States, Japan, South Korea, North Korea and Russia, along with host China, would serve as a forum to exchange opinions on “serious issues of concern for each nation.”
While Pyongyang’s nuclear issue has been the agenda at past six-party talks, the proposed meeting, if held, would mean that the multilateral talks are now aimed at easing tensions on the peninsula.
Wu said that the meeting was not meant to serve as a resumption of the six-party talks themselves.
Meanwhile, South Korean President Lee Myung-bak rebuffed Wu’s proposal saying that “now is not the time to talk about six-party talks,” according to a senior government official.
Meantime, Chinese State Councilor Dai Bingguo, who made a surprise visit to Seoul on Saturday, met with South Korean President Lee Myung-bak Sunday morning for talks aimed at preventing the Korean situation from deteriorating further.
Dai, who was visiting as an envoy to Chinese President Hu Jintao and Premier Wen Jiabao, said he hoped China and South Korea will “work together to prevent the situation from worsening and keep the peace.”
Lee responded, saying South Korea would “deal a powerful response if North Korea continues its provocation.”
The fact that civilians were indiscriminately targeted by North Korea “represents a major change in situation,” Lee said. He also expressed hope that “China will take a more responsible attitude toward North-South relations and contribute to peace on the peninsula.”
Dai, who was accompanied by Wu, chair of the six-party circuit of talks, also met with South Korean Foreign Minister Kim Sung-hwan Saturday.
The sudden decision to have Dai, who reports directly to Chinese President Hu Jintao, visit Seoul reflects the urgency with which Beijing views the situation.
The Chinese Foreign Ministry had objected to the joint exercises being staged in its exclusive economic zone (EEZ).
On Friday Foreign Minister Yang Jiechi met with the North Korean envoy to China, and asked for restraint on North Korea’s part.
Yang also held telephone conferences with U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton on Friday, and Japanese Foreign Minister Seiji Maehara and Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov on Saturday, in which he stressed the need to “cool down the heat that has accumulated over the situation, and avoid a repeat of clashes.”
While South Korean and U.S. officials have stopped short of announcing the actual exercise area, based on warnings issued to fishermen operating in the area, the site of the war games is believed to be more than 160 kilometers south of the NNL and over 170 kilometers from Shandong Peninsula in China.
The location was likely chosen to provide ample distance to prepare for an attack from North Korea, while avoiding irritating the Chinese.
A South Korean military source said the exercise would be conducted “entirely within the Republic of Korea’s EEZ.”
A senior joint chiefs of staff officer said the exercises, to be held through Dec. 1, were “necessary for strengthening deterrence against North Korea.”
“We are prepared to deal with any situation” that may arise during the exercise, the officer added.
According to the municipality of Incheon, whose jurisdiction covers Daeyeonpyeongdo, South Korean marines instructed the remaining residents of the island, just over a dozen kilometers from the North Korean coast, to evacuate to nearby bunkers at 11:18 a.m. Sunday.
While most have evacuated, 28 residents remain on the island. They are now outnumbered by the more than 100 journalists.
President Lee told a Cabinet meeting Saturday that “North Korea could engage in further provocations” during the exercises and called on all parties to be prepared.
The South Korean joint chiefs of staff said that while several explosions were heard coming from the North Korean side, they believed the sounds to be firing drills conducted inland.
The official North Korean mouthpiece Rodong Sinmun on Sunday warned that Pyongyang would “inflict merciless military damage if any provocative action is made.”