As Seoul threatened retaliation for North Korea’s deadly shelling of a South Korean island, U.S. officials scrambled Tuesday to avert any catastrophic escalation of hostilities after one of the most serious confrontations on the Korean peninsula in decades.
The shelling — which killed two soldiers and injured 19 people, including three civilians — sent South Koreans fleeing the west coast island of Yeonpyeong as their government put the air force on high alert and declared that North Korea would face “stern retaliation” if it launched further attacks.
Condemnation of the North came swiftly from foreign capitals. President Obama was “outraged,” an aide said, saying the Pyongyang government was “an ongoing threat that needs to be dealt with.” The White House called on North Korea to end “its belligerent action.”
The Obama administration sought to build diplomatic pressure on North Korea by enlisting the help of China, which provides vital energy assistance and other aid to the impoverished communist country. U.S. officials and allies began trying to round up support for a U.N. Security Council statement that would condemn Pyongyang’s action, diplomats said.
Such a statement would mark a significant shift for China, which strongly resisted international efforts to penalize North Korea after an international inquiry found that Pyongyang sank a South Korean warship, the Cheonan, in March. Diplomats said it was not immediately clear whether China would be willing to condemn its neighbor, despite the growing international pressure.
Visiting Beijing on Wednesday, U.S. envoy Stephen Bosworth read from a statement calling on North Korea to “cease its provocative and irresponsible actions against its neighbors” and fully abide by the armistice that ended the fighting in the Korean War in 1953.
Bosworth did not answer questions about whether the United States would be able to enlist Beijing’s support in reining in the North. But signals from China’s state media were not encouraging. The Global Times, which has close ties to the ruling Communist Party, barely chastised North Korea for the attack and pointed to the “hard-line policies” of South Korea and the “futile” economic sanctions by the United States.
A number of high-ranking members of Congress on Tuesday called on China to exert stronger influence on the North.
Rep. Howard L. Berman (D-Valley Village), chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, urged Beijing to “immediately suspend its economic and energy assistance to show Pyongyang that its aggression has consequences.”
The South Korean military was conducting drills near the island, which is close to the North-South border, when the North opened fire about 2:30 p.m. Tuesday.
Pyongyang had sent messages to Seoul that it considered the exercises “preparation for an invasion.”
The killing of soldiers and the attack on civilians put South Korean President Lee Myung-bak in the difficult position of having to respond strongly while avoiding dangerous escalation, analysts said.
Senior U.S. officials, including Secretary of Defense Robert M. Gates and Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton, met at the White House on Tuesday to discuss the crisis. Obama planned to call Lee late Tuesday to express a firm U.S. commitment to South Korean security, officials said.
Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, who was visiting Belarus, warned on Russian television of “a colossal danger that the accident may deteriorate into combat actions.”
He called on Koreans to show restraint.
U.S. officials said they were consulting with their allies, especially South Korea, to jointly decide the next step. They also suggested that Washington probably would not make any immediate fundamental changes in its approach to North Korea.
A U.S. Defense official said Tuesday that he saw no signs of movement of North or South Korean troops or equipment in the region.
The South Korean Defense Ministry said Wednesday that it would conduct a military drill with the U.S. off the Korean peninsula’s west coast on Sunday. It said an American aircraft carrier would take part.
Tuesday’s attack followed the disclosure over the weekend that North Korea was building a uranium enrichment plant at its nuclear site in Yongbyon, news that suggests the secretive regime is seeking a second method of building nuclear weapons.
That disclosure, followed by the attack on the island, stirred wide speculation that North Korea was seeking to pressure the U.S. to agree to further diplomatic concessions and aid.
There was also talk that Pyongyang might want to make a show of force to help establish military and popular support for Kim Jong Eun, the son of and presumed successor to North Korean leader Kim Jong Il.
Senior U.S. officials refused to speculate publicly, however. Gates told reporters that he had no answer for any question about North Korea that began with “Why.”
Another U.S. official acknowledged that the North Koreans have often launched provocations “to try to get other nations to sit down and talk. That could be what’s going on here, but it’s hard to tell.”
Several officials said Tuesday that they found the events alarming because of the North’s apparent willingness to risk military confrontation and its interest in expanding its nuclear program.
At the same time, officials did not indicate any greater willingness to bend to North Korean pressure to return to the negotiating table.
Administration officials have insisted for months that they will not resume talks until there are signs that North Korea is willing to wind down its nuclear program.
Michael Green, a former top Asia advisor to President George W. Bush who is now with the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, said the North Koreans were “really pushing hard to create a crisis.”
He said U.S. strategists have long tried to imagine how military encounters could lead to war on the Korean peninsula, and they have regularly considered the possibility that the North might begin shelling the island.
“This was a step that we thought was not too far from total war,” he said.
Analysts said the developments put China in an embarrassing position because Beijing has repeatedly resisted international attempts to punish the North.
The Chinese argued this spring that it was a mistake to penalize North Korea after the sinking of the warship.
Green said China’s unwillingness to penalize North Korea may have been read by Pyongyang as a green light for further action.
L. Gordon Flake, a longtime Korea analyst at the Maureen and Mike Mansfield Foundation in Washington, said China had been put in “a really rough position” by the developments.
“My guess is there’s going to be a real reevaluation going on in China,” he said.
Richter reported from Washington and Glionna from Seoul. Times staff writers David S. Cloud and Ken Dilanian in Washington and Sergei Loiko in Moscow contributed to this report.