China Calls For Urgent Talks On North Korea

China is trying to ease tensions between North and South Korea. Chinese officials have called for an emergency meeting of envoys, and to further North Korean nuclear disarmament talks. This unusually active, intense and public degree of engagement by China, shows how alarmed Beijing is by the crisis.

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South Korea's president has taken responsibility for failing to protect his country from attack. It was his first public statement since North Korea shelled a South Korean island, an attack that left four dead. And China, North Korea's ally and biggest training partner, is now doing what the U.S. has urged it to do: getting actively involved in trying to lower tensions. China wants to help the six nations that had been conducting talks about North Korea, to resume those talks. But as NPR's Louisa Lim reports, the response has not been positive, even from South Korea.

President LEE MYUNG-BAK (South Korea): (Foreign language spoken)

LOUISA LIM: In his statement, President Lee Myung-bak called the North Korean attack a crime against humanity, and threatened further retaliation in the case of any further provocation. He didnt mention Chinas offer to broker talks at all. That proposal, by Pyongyangs closest ally, was made yesterday in a hastily arranged news conference by Chinas deputy foreign minister, Wu Dawei, speaking through an interpreter.

Mr. WU DAWEI (Deputy Foreign Minister, China): (Through Translator) I would like to stress that although the proposed consultations do not mean the resumption of the six-party talks, we do hope they will help create conditions for the re-launch of the six-party talks.

LIM: According to Kyodo news agency, Japans chief spokesman says it will not attend such talks. South Korea had said it would consider the proposal very cautiously. Meanwhile, a U.S. spokesman said Pyongyang needed to take clear steps to demonstrate a change in behavior.

Some have dismissed Chinas call as a face-saving measure. But Zhu Feng, at Peking University, says it represents a change in policy for Beijing.

Mr. ZHU FENG (Peking University): Such an emergency call for consultation show Beijings new activism. I also see some sort of a Chinese dilemma. We are always embarrassed by some sort of failed balance between maintaining our traditional relations with Pyongyang, and how to address the very important concern about security and stability to South Korea, U.S. and the international community.

LIM: Beijing has so far failed to condemn North Koreas attack. But now, under intense international pressure, Beijings engaging in a flurry of diplomacy. Its sent a senior Chinese official to meet the South Korean president, and is preparing to receive North Koreas parliamentary chief tomorrow. But calls for Beijing to rein in Pyongyang are little more than wishful thinking, according to North Korea expert Brian Myers, from Dongseo University.

Mr. BRIAN MYERS (Dongseo University): I think we tend to exaggerate Chinas influence over North Korea in order to rationalize our own inactivity. No country can have much of an influence on the domestic politics of an ultranationalist state.

(Soundbite of news)

Unidentified Man (News anchor): ...aircraft carrier, the U.S.S. George Washington has already left its homeport of Yokosuka near Tokyo.

LIM: As the U.S. aircraft carrier the George Washington takes part in massive military exercises with South Korea in the Yellow Sea, whats interesting is that China hasnt protested more. Earlier this year, Beijing was livid when such exercises were suggested. Against a backdrop of growing nationalism, Chinas relative silence speaks volumes, according to Peking Universitys Zhu Feng.

Mr. FENG: My interpretation is that its some sort of signaling. If North Korea will continue to provoke such a - very recklessly, then Beijing will not show any support.

LIM: Inside China, the voices of discontent are growing. Some commentators are openly suggesting North Koreas erratic actions have canceled out its use as a buffer zone for China. But Pyongyang has crossed red line after red line without losing Chinese support and no one is prepared to guess where Beijings bottom line might be.

Louisa Lim, NPR News, Beijing.

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