U.S., South Korea launch war games

YEONPYEONG ISLAND, South Korea (AP) — A U.S. supercarrier and a South Korean destroyer took up position in the tense Yellow Sea on Sunday for joint military exercises that were a united show of force just days after a deadly North Korean artillery attack.

As tensions escalated across the region, with North Korea threatening another “merciless” attack, China belatedly jumped into the fray. Beijing’s top nuclear envoy, Wu Dawei, called for an emergency meeting in early December among regional powers involved in nuclear disarmament talks, including North Korea.

Seoul responded cautiously to the proposal from North Korea’s staunch ally, saying it should be “reviewed very carefully” in light of North Korea’s recent revelation of a new uranium-enrichment facility, even as protesters begged President Lee Myung-bak to find a way to resolve the tension and restore peace.

The troubled relations between the two Koreas, which fought a three-year war in the 1950s, have deteriorated steadily since Mr. Lee’s conservative government took power in 2008 with a tough new policy toward nuclear-armed North Korea.

Eight months ago, a South Korean warship went down in the western waters, killing 46 sailors in the worst attack on the South Korean military since the Korean War. Then, last Tuesday, North Korean troops showered artillery on Yeonpyeong, a South Korean-held island that houses military bases as well as a civilian population of 1,300 — an attack that marked a new level of hostility.

Two South Korean marines and two civilians were killed and 18 others wounded in the hailstorm of artillery that sent residents fleeing into bunkers and reduced homes on the island to charred rubble.

North Korea blamed the South for provoking the attack by holding artillery drills near the Koreas‘ maritime border and has threatened to be “merciless” if the current war games — set to last until Dec. 1 — get too close to its territory.

As U.S. and South Korean ships, including the nuclear-powered USS George Washington, sailed into the waters off Korea’s west coast Sunday, China began launching its diplomatic bid to calm tensions.

Washington and Seoul have been pressing China, North Korea’s main ally and benefactor, to help defuse the situation amid fears of all-out war.

China, slow at first to react, has quickened its diplomatic intervention in recent days. Chinese State Councilor Dai Bingguo made a last-minute visit to Seoul to confer with Mr. Lee.

Mr. Lee pressured China to contribute to peace in a “more objective, responsible” matter, and he warned Sunday that Seoul would respond “strongly” to any further provocation, the presidential office said.

The strong words were Mr. Lee’s first public comment in days. He was due to address the nation Monday morning amid calls from his people to take stronger action in dealing with the defiant North.

North Korea has walked a path of defiance since launching a rocket in April 2009 in violation of U.N. Security Council resolutions and abandoning the disarmament process in protest against the condemnation that followed.

However, in recent months Pyongyang has shown an eagerness to get back to the talks and has appeared increasingly frustrated by U.S. and South Korean reluctance to restart the negotiations.

Seoul has said it wants an acknowledgment of regret for the sinking of the Cheonan warship in March as well as a concrete show of commitment to denuclearization.

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