China Declines To Blame North For Korea Tensions

Leaders from South Korea, Japan and China recently gathered at a three-nation summit to discuss trade, but the sinking of a South Korean warship dominated the meeting. Now China has resisted pressure to censure North Korea for its possible attack on the South Korean vessel.

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This is MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Renee Montagne.

And as of this morning, North and South Korea are still poised on the edge of conflict. There were hopes that China could persuade the North to admit it mounted the attack on a South Korean warship last March which left 46 sailors dead. But after meetings in South Korea, China's premier declined to put the blame on North Korea. NPR's Mike Shuster has this update from Seoul.

MIKE SHUSTER: Over the past three days, Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao held bilateral talks with South Korea's president, Lee Myung-bak, about the torpedoing of the warship Cheonan. Then they were joined by Japan's prime minister, Yukio Hatoyama, and the three leaders discussed the incident. But Wen remained neutral. He did express China's condolences for the 46 South Korean sailors who died in the attack. And he said China would not defend the guilty party, whichever was responsible. But he would not blame North Korea, as South Korean presidential adviser Lee Dong-kwan explained after the talks.

Mr. LEE DONG-KWAN (South Korean adviser): (Through translator) The Chinese government will seriously consider international investigations and each country's reactions, and determine right and wrong. And then it will decide on its stance by judging objectively and fairly.

SHUSTER: Nonetheless, North Korea is threatening to use all military means at its disposal should South Korea consider retaliation of any kind, even if it decides to pursue sanctions in the U.N. Security Council. China has limited its approach to appeals for maximum restraint. Over the past three days, Wen has said, again and again, that stability is the most important goal on the Korean peninsula. Gochi Ki(ph), an analyst for China's Central TV's English-language channel, says the diplomacy of the Chinese leader is designed to help diffuse the situation and avoid further conflict.

Mr. GOCHI KI (Analyst, China TV's English channel): China has called all the relevant parties to exercise maximum restraint in order not to push this very dangerous situation into a further abyss. Right now, both sides of Korea are highly armed - to the teeth.

SHUSTER: North Korea has used pressure of its own. Yesterday, it mounted a demonstration in Pyongyang of tens of thousands of people. Speakers condemned, in their words, the gang of traitors leading the government in Seoul, and characterized the South Korean accusations as a blatant declaration of war.

On Saturday, the National Defense Commission of North Korea held a rare press conference. The commission is the highest governing body in North Korea, bringing together both military and civilian leaders. The head of its policy department, Major General Pak Rim Su, attempted to refute the findings of the South Korean investigation, point by point. And he warned South Korea to be very careful.

Major General PAK RIM SU (National Defense Commission, North Korea): (Foreign language spoken)

SHUSTER: Psychological warfare against us has been resumed along the military demarcation line, the general said, which is raising tensions to an unprecedented level. He added: Any spontaneous collision, whether at sea or in the demilitarized zone, can result in all-out war.

For its part, South Korea has been trying to calibrate its response carefully, seeking ways to stand up to North Korea without going as far as military action.

(Soundbite of gunfire)

A few days ago, the South Korea navy engaged in antisubmarine warfare maneuvers off its western coast, near the scene of the torpedo attack. On Saturday, some 20 South Korean military commanders met in Seoul to discuss the readiness of their armed forces, and steps South Korea might have to take if Pyongyang resorts to additional armed actions.

That's a possibility that is worrying the U.S. as well. Yesterday on Fox News Sunday, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Admiral Michael Mullen, warned that North Korea's armed forces may mount other, unexpected operations.

Admiral MICHAEL MULLEN (Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff): Im concerned there's - with Kim Jong Il, he just doesn't seem to do single things. So I'm concerned that, you know, there could be follow-on activities. That said, I think, certainly, the political and diplomatic and international focus to keep it stable in that part of the world is absolutely vital.

SHUSTER: But U.S. forces in South Korea have detected no unusual military movements in North Korea since this crisis began. Actually, Kim Jong Il, the mercurial and unpredictable North Korean leader, has not been seen publicly for almost two weeks, not since South Korea formally accused North Korea of mounting the attack. He has not appeared on television, nor was he present at yesterday's demonstration in Pyongyang.

Mike Shuster, NPR News, Seoul.

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