U.S. urges restraint in Korea, pressures China

 The United States appealed to South Korea on Thursday to show restraint as the danger level from North Korea rises, but again criticized China for enabling its ally Pyongyang's "reckless behavior."

The South has vowed to hit back hard against its neighbor if Pyongyang orders a repeat of last month's attack, bolstering its defenses in the disputed West Sea area and amending military rules of engagement to permit the use of fighter jets and bombs.

"I actually believe that because these provocations continue, and seemingly at a more frequent interval, that the danger is going up and that steps must be taken to ensure that they stop," Admiral Mike Mullen, chairman of the U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff, told a news conference in Tokyo.

Last month's attack on Yeonpyeong island, the first of its kind against civilians on South Korean soil since the end of the 1950-53 war, coupled with the North's revelations of nuclear advances, have boosted tension on the divided peninsula.

U.S. Admiral Mike Mullen (L), chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and his South Korean counterpart General Han Min-koo, attend a joint news conference at the defence ministry in Seoul December 8, 2010.
U.S. Admiral Mike Mullen (L), chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and his South Korean counterpart General Han Min-koo, attend a joint news conference at the defence ministry in Seoul December 8, 2010.

Washington has repeatedly urged Beijing to rein in Pyongyang.

"Much of that volatility is owed to the reckless behavior of the North Korean regime, enabled by their friends in China," Mullen said.

He also said that the United States wants sustainable military ties with China, instead of on-and-off contact. At the same time, Beijing said it had sent General Ma Xiaotian, deputy chief of general staff of the People's Liberation Army, to the United States for military-to-military talks.

Mullen justified staging joint military exercises with South Korea off the west coast of the peninsula, saying the Yellow Sea is free waters where the U.S. military has operated and will continue to do so.

A U.S. military official said Washington was encouraging Seoul to think strategically and in the long-term rather than focusing on tit-for-tat retaliation.

"Any actions that are taken -- actions, reactions -- have to be done very carefully to make sure that we don't escalate, that they are proportional, and at the same time send a very strong signal that the provocations must cease," Mullen said.

Analysts say Pyongyang will likely stage further, possibly bigger incidents, in the future to cement a leadership transition from ailing leader Kim Jong-il to his son. They say the North, which has a military-first policy, also stages what they call "provocations" to extract concessions at multilateral talks.


Earlier on Thursday, North Korea released a report on defending last month's deadly attack on a South Korean island, accusing Seoul and Washington of "persistently escalating tension" in disputed seas off its west coast.

The North fired a barrage of artillery shells at Yeonpyeong, one of five South Korean islands straddling the contested Northern Limit Line (NLL) sea border, killing four people, including two civilians.

Pyongyang said it had fired artillery at the island after South Korea had fired into its waters. Seoul said it had only been conducting regular military drills in the area at the time.

South Korea "fired as many as thousands of shells into the territorial waters of the DPRK (North Korea) side," the state news agency quoted the Secretariat of the Committee for the Peaceful Reunification of Korea report as saying.

"This reckless act was obviously a deliberate provocation to prompt the DPRK to take a military counter-action," it said.

Pyongyang does not recognize the NLL, arguing that the demarcation was established without its consent after the 1950-1953 Korean war.

There have been several deadly battles in the area over the past decade, and in March a South Korea warship was torpedoed killing 46 sailors.

"The above-said island is located deep inside the territorial waters of the DPRK side from the maritime demarcation line," the report said.

"If any live shell firing is conducted from there, shells are bound to drop inside the territorial waters of the DPRK side no matter in which direction they are fired because of these geographical features of the island."

Both Koreas frequently conduct drills in the area.

The statement also said the South had "persistently mocked at the DPRK's sincere efforts to improve the inter-Korean relations and turned away their faces from them."

The North has said it wants to resume six party nuclear talks, but Washington and Seoul have said they will only consider a return to the negotiating table when Pyongyang shows it is sincere about denuclearization.

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