As South Korean death toll rises, U.S. scrambles to limit hostilities
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 Pentagon announced it would send the aircraft carrier George Washington to join military exercises with South Korea off the west coast of the Korean Peninsula on Sunday, a move meant to deter further attacks by Pyongyang and prevent the latest crisis on the peninsula from escalating into war, U.S. officials said.
By sending the carrier to the Yellow Sea, the U.S. is also sending an implicit message to China, which has long viewed the sea as within its own territorial waters, that it must step up its pressure to restrain North Korea or expect greater U.S. military presence in the area.
The South Korean government announced that searchers had found the bodies of two island residents, the first civilian casualties from the clash that killed two South Korean soldiers and injured at least 19 people, including three civilians.
The shelling 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 killings of South Koreans put 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.
Sunday’s military exercises, which will include five other U.S. vessels as well as U.S. and South Korean ground forces, were announced over the summer after the sinking of a South Korean navy vessel in an attack widely blamed on North Korea. But the starting date was finalized only this week in response to the artillery barrage, officials said.
In a statement, the U.S. military command in South Korea said the exercises were “defensive in nature” and meant to demonstrate “our commitment to regional stability through deterrence.”
A Pentagon official said, “The dates were not officially set until early this week after this artillery duel lent a higher sense of urgency to it.” He added that other steps might be announced in coming days in response to the artillery attack.
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 and Cloud reported from Washington and Glionna from Seoul. Times staff writer Ken Dilanian in Washington and Sergei Loiko in Moscow contributed to this report.
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