UN Security Council meets on Korea tensions

By The Associated Press

UNITED NATIONS (AP) — World powers trying to defuse tensions between North and South Korea met in an emergency session of the U.N. Security Council on Sunday, but disagreed over whether the North should be singled out for criticism over two deadly attacks this year that have helped send relations to their lowest point in decades.

China and Russia, the countries with the closest North Korea ties, have expressed concern about the South Korean military’s 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 United States supports South Korea, a staunch ally, and says any country has a right to train for self-defense.

The North warned of a “catastrophe” if South Korea goes ahead with the drills. The reclusive communist government in Pyongyang said it would 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, defensive in nature and should not be considered threatening.

Russia called for the Security Council 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 and China, which are permanent members of the 15-nation council along with the U.S., Britain and France, just want a statement to urge calm and appoint an envoy, but most council members view that as unfairly equating the actions of the two Koreas, said a council diplomat who spoke on condition of anonymity because the talks are taking place in private.

The council began meeting shortly after 11 a.m. EST (1600 GMT) and heard a briefing from U.N. political chief B. Lynn Pascoe on the situation in the Koreas. After four hours, the council was still holding consultations behind closed doors.

The council diplomat said Pascoe echoed U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, 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.”

Ban was South Korea’s foreign minister before becoming secretary-general in 2007. He 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 shelling of the island and the March 26 sinking of the South Korean warship Cheonan, which killed 46 sailors and was blamed on a North Korean torpedo.

Those incidents are not mentioned in a Russian draft presidential statement circulated to Security Council members and obtained by The Associated Press. It 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 Ban to immediately send an envoy to both countries “to consult on urgent measures to settle peacefully the current crisis situation in the Korean Peninsula.”

Russia borders North Korea and after China is considered the country with the closest ties to Pyongyang. Russia’s Foreign Ministry has urged South Korea to cancel the drill to avoid escalating tensions.

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.”

Several bloody naval skirmishes 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. 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 U.N., has held three meetings with top leaders in the foreign ministry and military during a four-day visit to Pyongyang. He 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,” 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 was also quoted as saying some North Korean fighter jets that had been inside the air force hangar in the west coast also came out to the ground.

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.

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.