BEIJING // China called for emergency talks yesterday to calm the increasingly combative relations between North and South Korea as the United States and Seoul started military exercises close to the sea border between the feuding nations.
Beijing proposed an emergency meeting among the six nations involved in the stalled North Korean nuclear disarmament talks to ease tensions after North Korea's artillery barrage on Tuesday that killed four people on the South Korean island of Yeonpyeong. Meanwhile, Seoul urged Beijing yesterday to take a "fairer and more responsible" attitude to the Korean peninsula - diplomatic speak for reining in North Korea.
North Korea yesterday said the Korean peninsula was being brought to a "war state", as the United States aircraft carrier USS George Washington, four other US Navy ships and a host of South Korean vessels and aircraft engaged in the war games in the Yellow Sea.
In characteristically bellicose language, Pyongyang promised a robust response if the exercises, which are due to last four days, infringed its territory.
The Korea Central News Agency (KCNA) said "no one can predict the ensuing consequences" of having a US aircraft carrier in the area.
According to a report from Yonhap, the South Korean news agency, in an apparent response to the naval exercises, North Korea moved missiles into position on Yellow Sea launch pads.
A statement from North Korea's National Peace Committee said the manoeuvres were bringing the region to an "abnormally serious war state".
Pyongyang again promised to retaliate if its territory was violated, saying it had made "all preparations to deal with all kinds of provocation". The Communist party newspaper Rodong Sinmun warned of a "merciless military counter-attack".
South Korea admitted it fired a shell yesterday towards the demilitarised zone that separates it from North Korea, although the South Korean government-affiliated Yonhap news agency said Seoul quickly sent a message to Pyongyang saying the action was not deliberate.
On Yeonpyeong Island, where two marines and two civilians died in Tuesday's shelling, residents rushed for air-raid shelters again as shellfire, thought to originate from North Korea, was heard.
Seoul ordered journalists to leave the island as the defence ministry could not guarantee their safety.
The South Korean president, Lee Myung-bak, yesterday promised Seoul would "strongly respond" if attacked by North Korea.
During a meeting with the Chinese official Dai Bingguo, Mr Lee called on Beijing to be "fairer and more responsible" in its dealings with the Korean peninsula, echoing calls from the United States and Japan for China to pressure Pyongyang.
According to a Yonhap despatch, Mr Lee said China should attempt to "contribute to peace on the Korean peninsula" when dealing with North Korea and South Korea. In a report earlier in the week, Yonhap had complained that "to no one's surprise, Beijing is showing no willingness to use its clout over Pyongyang".
Yesterday China's special representative on Korean peninsula affairs, Wu Dawei, proposed "emergency consultations" in Beijing early next month among the countries involved in stalled talks over Pyongyang's nuclear programme.
The talks would allow all sides to "exchange views on major issues of concern", Mr Wu said in a statement released by China's Xinhua news agency.
In recent days Beijing and Moscow have called for the resumption of the discussions, which also involve the two Koreas, the United States and Japan.
However, following revelations last weekend over the extent of North Korea's uranium enrichment programme, Washington said the talks should not restart.
South Korea's foreign ministry yesterday said China's call for the talks to restart "should be studied very carefully", a response Yonhap said "was seen as a de facto rejection of Beijing's proposal".
KCNA yesterday continued the line that in shelling Yeonpyeong, North Korea was responding to "reckless military provocation", a likely reference to military manoeuvres Seoul was carrying out on Tuesday ahead of the bombardment.
In South Korea there have been protests at which the North Korean flag and pictures of the country's leader, Kim Jong-il, were set alight.
Anger has also centred on what some see as a slow and weak response by Seoul to North Korean aggression, with tensions high since the sinking in March of the South Korean warship Cheonan with the loss of 46 lives, an event blamed on North Korea.
Seoul yesterday said the attack caused five billion won (Dh15.89 million) damage.