North, South Koreas Smolder As Asian Heads Meet

South Korea is convinced a North Korean submarine carried out the deadly torpedo attack that split a South Korean warship in half and killed 46 sailors. North Korea denies responsibility. Host Scott Simon talks to NPR's Mike Shuster from Seoul, where Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao meets Saturday with South Korea's president and the prime minister of Japan over the crisis.

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SCOTT SIMON, host:

This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Scott Simon.

Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao is in South Korea today for a second day of talks. He's meeting with South Korea's president and the prime minister of Japan amidst the crisis sparked by the torpedo attack in March of a South Korean warship. An international investigation found that a North Korean submarine carried out that attack. North Korea denies it was responsible. The torpedo split the ship in half and killed 46 sailors.

In response, North Korea has threatened to mount an all-out war against South Korea. And today South Korea's military commanders held meetings to consider what to do if North Korea follows through on its threats.

NPR's Mike Shuster joins us from Seoul. Mike, thanks for being with us.

MIKE SHUSTER: Hi, Scott.

SIMON: And just give us an idea of where things stand if there is in fact what amounts to a standoff over the past 24 hours.

SHUSTER: Well, it's been calm over the past 24 hours. There's been nothing that could be considered a military move or a military provocation. The tension that does exist here, Scott, is essentially at the rhetorical level. And the meeting of South Korea's commanders appears to be an effort to demonstrate readiness on the part of South Korea's military, and consider contingencies and how to counter them. But there's no evidence that North Korea has put its army on alert or moved troops in any threatening way. So nothing unusual in that respect.

SIMON: And what do you glean out of any reports coming out of North Korea?

SHUSTER: Well, this part is very interesting. There was an important development yesterday. North Korea's National Defense Commission held a press conference. This almost never happens. The National Defense Commission is the most important entity of national leadership in North Korea and it brings together the top civilian leadership of the country, which includes Kim Jung Il, the leader, with the top military leaders.

Yesterday, a major general, Pak Rim-Su, who is head of the group's policy department, held the press conference. He didn't say anything that other North Korean leaders haven't said during this crisis. He denied a North Korean sub torpedoed the Cheonan, the name of the ship that was split in half. He went point by point through South Korea's allegations and tried to counter them.

And he repeated the familiar hostile rhetoric that's been coming out of Pyongyang for a number of weeks now, that South Korea's explanation of the incident was an absurd ploy, a sheer fabrication. He even used the phrase a dastardly farce. I think this press conference was interesting because it took place while Wen Jiabao, the Chinese premier, was in South Korea.

SIMON: Well, and help us assess the significance of the premier's presence there. Met with South Korea's president and with Japan's prime minister.

SHUSTER: Right.

SIMON: What's he been saying?

SHUSTER: Well, the three-way meeting was on economics and it was planned ahead of time and it's been somewhat overshadowed by this crisis over the torpedoed ship. Wen Jiabao has really tried to avoid committing himself to either side in the conflict. He's held two days of talks here and he's made it clear, China's relationship with South Korea is very important and that he doesn't want to do anything that would destabilize the situation and harm China's relations with Seoul.

South Korea has encouraged both China and Russia to send teams of experts to pursue their own investigations. What South Korea's President Lee Myung-Bak wants is for China to prevail upon the North Korean leaders to admit they ordered the attack. And so far, Wen, the Chinese premier, has been unwilling to do that and unwilling to take a stand one way or another - although he did say that China would not defend the guilty party in this, but he hasn't said who he things the guilty party is.

SIMON: And for the moment, does that satisfy the South Korean government?

SHUSTER: Yes, basically it does, I think. South Korean leaders have said they don't want to push the Chinese too hard. They appear to understand that China has a sensitive relationship with North Korea. But they hope that China will send experts here to take a look at the evidence and the South Koreans are playing their relationship with China very patiently, and they hope that patience will pay off with support from China when this issue gets to the U.N. Security Council possibly next week.

SIMON: NPR's Mike Shuster in Seoul, South Korea. Thanks so much.

SHUSTER: You're welcome, Scott.

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