SKorea Vows Action Against North but Flip-Flops on Drills.
(Nov. 29) — South Korea’s president apologized today for failing to better protect his citizens and vowed actions — not words — against what he called “inhumane” North Korean attacks. His comments came on Day 2 of military drills with U.S. forces designed to threaten and deter nuclear-armed Pyongyang in the wake of its deadly barrage on a southern island.
But while the USS George Washington and its South Korean allies rehearse for war in the Yellow Sea, China is calling for “emergency consultations” to calm emotions on the Korean peninsula — seizing a diplomatic role, albeit in a neutral way, that Washington and Seoul have long pushed for Beijing to play.
South Korean President Lee Myung-bak gave his first speech on national TV today since the North’s artillery attack killed two South Korean civilians and two marines last Tuesday on Yeonpyeong Island near the Koreas’ disputed sea border. Seoul announced today that more live-fire exercises would take place on the island, but then quickly reversed the decision, saying marines made the announcement without final approval from superiors. The same type of drills prompted last week’s attack.Lee has been struggling to display his government’s leadership while embroiled in the crisis with the North, and today’s flip-flop over more Yeonpyeong drills only exacerbated his critics’ frustration. His defense minister resigned Thursday amid public outrage over Seoul’s failure to prevent the attack, which also wounded nearly 20 people. Hundreds of veterans have been rallying in Seoul’s streets, burning North Korean flags and effigies of Kim Jong Il but also decrying their own government as weak.”Genuine peace will only be possible when we confront any threats and provocations with sturdy courage,” Lee said today, according to The Wall Street Journal. “Any provocations by the North from now on will, without fail, be met with strong responses.”
Naval skirmishes are not uncommon between the two Koreas, technically still at war after their 1950-53 war ended without a peace treaty. But last week was the first time a residential, civilian neighborhood suffered a direct hit.
"North Korea will pay the price in the event of further provocations," Lee continued, according to Reuters. "Attacking civilians militarily is an inhumane crime that is strictly forbidden in a time of war. … Now is the time to show action, not a hundred words."
Lee’s speech comes on the second of four days of joint military exercises between South Korean and American forces, which are taking place off the coasts of the Korean peninsula and China.
Beijing said last week that it objects to the drills, which ratcheted up tensions across Asia and speculation about whether all-out war between the Koreas could be coming. Pyongyang said Friday the exercises bring the peninsula “closer to the brink of war,” and its state media said today that the drills mark an “intentional plot” by Washington and Seoul, The Associated Press reported.
Over the weekend, Beijing seemed to embrace the role of mediator that Washington and Seoul have long encouraged, but did so in a neutral way, failing to assign blame to the North for Tuesday’s clashes. Still, China called for both Koreas, the U.S., Japan and Russia to convene for emergency talks in Beijing next month, in a resumption of the talks with the same parties that have so far failed to reach a breakthrough over Pyongyang’s disputed nuclear program.
Beijing also sent one of its top foreign policy officials to Seoul over the weekend and announced that a North Korean official would travel to China on Tuesday, The New York Times reported.
It’s unclear whether China’s actions are a result of pressure from Washington and Seoul, and whether they would prove fruitful. But the U.S. and South Korea have demanded concerted action from China to wield its influence with Pyongyang, more than Beijing has so far taken. China is North Korea’s only real ally and provides the country with desperately needed humanitarian aid.
"North Korea is not the kind of country that if its neighbor severs economic assistance it will bow down and listen to it," Liu Ming of the Shanghai Academy of Social Sciences told the Times. "China knows this, so it cannot do much more."
Japan, meanwhile, voiced reluctance today at China’s suggestion of new six-party talks with North Korea. “We want to respond to [the proposal] cautiously while consulting with the United States and South Korea,” Prime Minister Naoto Kan told reporters in Tokyo, according to The Straits Times.
In the past, Seoul has vetoed the idea of renewed six-party talks over the North’s nuclear program, saying it won’t participate until Pyongyang apologizes for the sinking of a southern warship last March, which killed 46 sailors. The Cheonan’s demise in the Yellow Sea not far from Yeonpyeong Island was blamed on a North Korean torpedo, but Pyongyang has denied any involvement.