- Associated Press - Saturday, December 18, 2010

UNITED NATIONS (AP) — The U.N. Security Council met in emergency session Sunday amid rising tensions on the Korean peninsula and a North Korean warning of a “catastrophe” if South Korea goes ahead with a live-fire drill.

Russia called for the meeting, and Moscow wants the U.N.’s most powerful body to adopt a statement calling on North Korea and South Korea “to exercise maximum restraint” and urging immediate diplomatic efforts to reduce tensions.

Russia borders North Korea and, after China, is considered the country with the closest ties to the reclusive communist government in Pyongyang. Russia’s U.N. ambassador, Vitaly Churkin, said Saturday the situation on the Korean peninsula “directly affects the national security interests of the Russian Federation.”

South Korea’s military plans to conduct one-day, live-fire drills by Tuesday on the same front-line island the North shelled last month as the South conducted a similar exercise. The North warned that the drills would cause it to strike back harder than it did last month, when two South Korean marines and two civilians were killed on Yeonpyeong Island.

South Korea says the drills are routine and defensive in nature and should not be considered threatening. The United States supports Seoul, a staunch ally, and says any country has a right to train for self-defense. But Russia and China, fellow veto-wielding permanent members of the 15-nation Security Council, have expressed concern.

Russia’s Foreign Ministry has urged South Korea to cancel the drill to avoid escalating tensions.

A Russian draft presidential statement circulated to Securtiy Council members and obtained by the Associated Press stresses the need for efforts “to ensure a de-escalation of tension” between the two Koreas and a “resumption of dialogue and resolution of all problems dividing them exclusively through peaceful diplomatic means.”

It asks Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon to immediately send an envoy to both countries “to consult on urgent measures to settle peacefully the current crisis situation in the Korean Peninsula.”

The council began meeting behind closed doors shortly after 11 a.m. and heard a briefing from U.N. political chief B. Lynn Pascoe on the situation in the Koreas.

Mr. Pascoe echoed Mr. Ban, who on Friday called the Nov. 23 attack on the tiny island of Yeonpyeong “one of the gravest provocations since the end of (the) Korean War,” according to a council diplomat, speaking on condition of anonymity because the consultations are closed.

Mr. Ban, a former South Korean foreign minister, said he is following events closely and is seriously concerned over the rising tensions.

The diplomat said most council members want a statement that condemns North Korea for the Nov. 23 shelling of Yeonpyeong Island and the March 26 sinking of the South Korean warship Cheonan, which killed 46 sailors and was blamed on a North Korean torpedo. But Russia and China just want the statement to urge calm and appoint an envoy, which most council members view as unfairly equating the actions of the two Koreas, the diplomat said.

Several bloody naval skirmishes have occurred along the western sea border between the two Koreas in recent years, but last month’s assault was the first by the North to target a civilian area since the end of the 1950-53 Korean War. The North does not recognize the U.N.-drawn sea border in the area.

The North claims South Korea fired artillery toward its territorial waters before it unleashed shells on the island on Nov. 23, while the South says it launched shells southward, not toward North Korea, as part of routine exercises.

New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson, a frequent unofficial envoy to North Korea and former U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, has held three important meetings with top leaders in the North Korean Foreign Ministry and military during a four-day visit to Pyongyang and also called for maximum restraint.

“I hope that the U.N. Security Council will pass a strong resolution calling for self-restraint from all sides in order to seek peaceful means to resolve this dispute,” Mr. Richardson said in a statement released by his U.S. office late Saturday. “A U.N. resolution could provide cover for all sides that prevents aggressive military action.”

According to South Korea’s Yonhap news agency, North Korea has raised military readiness of its artillery unit along the west coast.

It cited an unidentified South Korean government official who also was quoted as saying some fighter jets that had been inside the air force hangar in the west coast also came out of the hangar.

A South Korean Defense Ministry official declined to confirm the report, citing the issue’s sensitivity. He asked not to be identified, as he was not authorized to speak to the media.

The South Korean military will hold the drills on Monday if weather permits, the official said, without elaborating.

The North’s Foreign Ministry said Saturday that South Korea would face “catastrophe” if the drills take place, in a statement carried by the official Korean Central News Agency.

China, the North’s key ally, has said it is “unambiguously opposed” to any acts that could worsen already-high tensions.

Chinese Foreign Minister Yang Jiechi and his Russian counterpart, Sergei Lavrov, called for restraint from all parties concerned to avoid escalation, according to China’s official Xinhua News Agency.

South Korean marines carrying rifles conducted routine patrols Sunday on Yeonpyeong Island. About 240 residents, officials and journalists remain on Yeonpyeong, said Lim Byung-chan, an official from Ongjin County, which governs the island. He said there is no immediate plan to order a mandatory evacuation to the mainland.

Amid security jitters, nearly 800 out of 1,300 civilians living on the island moved to unsold apartments in Gimpo, west of Seoul, on Sunday, according to Ongjin County officials.

Associated Press writers Ahn Young-Joon on Yeonpyeong Island, South Korea; Kim Kwang-Tae and Hyung-jin Kim in Seoul; David Nowak in Moscow; Veronika Oleksyn in Vienna, Austria; Anita Snow at the United Nations; and AP Television News cameraman Kim Yong-ho on Yeonpyeong Island contributed to this report.

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