China’s Wen reacts ambiguously to island assault

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China’s Wen reacts ambiguously to island assault

Chinese Prime Minister Wen Jiabao said China will not tolerate military provocations on the Korean Peninsula.

The remark came as criticism mounted over China’s nonresponse to tension in the region stemming from the deadly shelling of a South Korean island by North Korea on Tuesday.

“China is firmly committed to maintaining the peace and stability of the Korean Peninsula and opposes any provocative military acts,” Wen said in a statement issued by the Chinese foreign ministry yesterday. The remark was made during Wen’s visit to Moscow on Wednesday, where he met Russian President Dmitry Medvedev, the ministry said.

Wen’s remark is the first official reaction from China’s leadership regarding the attack on Yeonpyeong Island, near the inter-Korean maritime border in the Yellow Sea. Four people, including two civilians, were killed and 19 others were wounded and treated at hospitals.

It was unclear, however, whether Wen’s statement was directed at the North’s attack or an upcoming South Korean-U.S. joint military drill in the Yellow Sea involving a U.S. aircraft carrier.

President Lee Myung-bak and U.S. President Barack Obama agreed during a telephone conversation on Wednesday to start the military drill on Sunday as a coordinated response to the shelling attack. The 97,000-ton U.S.S. George Washington has left its base in Yokosuka, Japan, to join the drill in the Yellow Sea, according to South Korean military sources.

Initially, the drill, one of a series planned after the sinking of the South Korean warship Cheonan in March, was roughly scheduled for this year without a specific date set. Seoul and Washington had delayed it several times because of China’s opposition.

Observers said that the ambiguity of Wen’s remark was intended by China to avoid pressure to rein in the North, its longtime ally.

In a meeting with Medvedev, Wen also reiterated the need for the resumption of six-party talks on North Korea’s nuclear disarmament as a solution to lowering tensions, a call that China also made after the Cheonan sinking.

Seoul and Washington say the North needs to show sincerity about the talks before reopening them.

According to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade yesterday, China’s foreign minister, Yang Jiechi, postponed a visit to South Korea tomorrow citing unspecified scheduling problems. Observers said the postponement was another sign of China’s discomfort with the joint drill in the Yellow Sea and a way of avoiding getting pressed by Seoul to deal with the North’s Yeonpyeong attack.

Analysts say there’s more pressure on China to rein in the North after the shelling than after the Cheonan sinking. “China will be more pressed to move this time because circumstantial evidence shows the pre-emptiveness and viciousness of the attack so obviously,” a Seoul diplomatic source said. The Yeonpyeong attack is the North’s first shelling of South Korean land and civilians since the end of the Korean War. U.S. State Department spokesman Philip Crowley told a news briefing Wednesday that the Yeonpyeong attack constitutes a violation of the armistice, which banned provocations from both Koreas after the Korean War ended in 1953.

Crowley said the U.S. is working to coordinate responses to the shelling, in particular with China. “China is pivotal in moving North Korea in a fundamentally different direction,” he said. The Lee administration also decided to double its diplomatic efforts to secure China’s backing to rein in North Korea, said Hong Sang-pyo, senior presidential secretary for public affairs. And yet Lee had no plans to talk to his Chinese counterpart over the phone as of yesterday, Hong said. Lee had telephone conversations with his U.S., Japanese, British and German counterparts to discuss a coordinated move to punish the North.

By Moon Gwang-lip, Ser Myo-ja []
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