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China response to US-South Korea drill muted

YEONPYEONG, South Korea — China expressed muted concern on Thursday about U.S.-South Korean military exercises in the Yellow Sea while North Korea threatened further attacks on the wealthy South if there were more “provocations.”
Seoul said it would increase troops on islands near North Korea following Tuesday’s bombardment of one of its small islands by Pyongyang’s artillery that killed four people and caused a sharp spike in tension.

Washington is putting increasing pressure on China to rein in North Korea, but a foreign ministry spokesman in Beijing said what was needed was a revival of the stalled six-party talks involving the Koreas, Russia, China, Japan and the U.S.

“We have noted the relevant reports and express our concern about this,” spokesman Hong Lei said, referring to the joint military exercises next week and the use of the nuclear-powered aircraft carrier the USS George Washington.

But Beijing has previously used stronger language to signal its displeasure. In August, the People’s Liberation Army said earlier plans to send the George Washington to the Yellow Sea would make it lose respect and threatened long-term damage to Sino-U.S. relations.

The government declined comment but, if correct, would rule out one theory that the North’s bombardment of Yeonpyeong might have been the decision of a rogue military commander.

U.S. officials said the attack appeared linked to the upcoming succession in North Korea’s leadership.

At least four people, including two civilians, were killed and dozens of houses destroyed on the island in the heaviest attack by the North since the Korean War ended in 1953.

South Korean President Lee Myung-bak convened an emergency meeting early on Thursday to look at how to contain the economic impact from the attack and additional security measures.

The military presence on islands in the Yellow Sea near the disputed border will be boosted and an earlier plan to scale down marine troops stationed there will be canceled, a presidential Blue House official said later.

South Korea also said it would pursue constructive engagement with China, which also has coast along the Yellow Sea, to use its influence over Pyongyang.

That plan looked to have suffered a setback with a later announcement that Chinese Foreign Minister Yang Jiechi had delayed a plan to visit Seoul this week. No reason was given.

China has long propped up the Pyongyang leadership, worried that a collapse of the North could bring instability to its own borders. Beijing is also wary of a unified Korea that would be dominated by the United States, the key ally of the South.

“If China does not put public pressure on North Korea, provocations by North Korea will continue,” Seoul’s Chosun Ilbo newspaper said. “If the Korean peninsula is in flames, Chinese prosperity will shake from the bottom.”

The deaths of civilians have added to anger in the South.

“Let me say a word about those bastards at the Blue House who advised the president to say the situation should be managed to avoid a full-blown war,” the Korea Joongang Daily quoted ruling party Representative Hong Sa-duk as saying.

“They must all be fired for advising the president to have such a weak response.”

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