SEOUL – The US and South Korean navies Wednesday ended a major show of strength intended to deter North Korea from repeating last week's deadly artillery bombardment, but Seoul's spy chief said new attacks are likely.
The allies' biggest-ever joint manoeuvre, which saw jet fighters thunder through the sky above a US carrier battle group, began days after Pyongyang stunned the world with an artillery strike on a South Korean border island.
“The danger of further attacks from North Korea is high,” Seoul's spy chief was quoted as telling a closed session of parliament's intelligence committee.
The North staged the attack in search of a breakthrough because its people are increasingly aggrieved over economic difficulties and over plans to transfer power from leader Kim Jong-Il to his youngest son, a committee member National Intelligence Service director Won Sei-Hoon was quoted as saying.
Won also said the South had confirmed through electronic surveillance back in August that the North was planning to attack one of the five frontline islands near the disputed Yellow Sea border.
The North says its November 23 attack, which killed two civilians and two soldiers on Yeonpyeong island, was in retaliation for South Korean shells landing in its waters during a military drill earlier that day.
Seoul insists the North's attack was carefully planned and premeditated to rally support for the heir apparent.
The South's military said the allies would repeat the naval exercises, which demonstrate a firm commitment to “sternly respond to any North Korean provocation”.
“We have been in consultations with the US to carry out several rounds of joint military drills to deal with limited provocations by the enemy,” Colonel Kim Young-Cheol of the Joint Chiefs of Staff was quoted as saying by Yonhap news agency. No dates have been set.
China — strongly opposed to the display of allied firepower in the Yellow Sea, which it views as its backyard — called for all parties involved in the crisis to avoid actions that “inflame the situation”.
“The parties concerned should keep calm and exercise restraint and work to bring the situation back onto the track of dialogue and negotiation,” Xinhua news agency quoted Foreign Minister Yang Jiechi as saying.
He also said China, North Korea's major ally, “decides its position based on the merits of each case and does not seek to protect any side”.
The four-day drill went off without incident even though the North had warned it brought the peninsula to “the brink of war”.
Still, South Korea was taking no chances and was deploying surface-to-air missiles on Yeonpyeong island, Yonhap quoted a military source as saying.
It has already sent more artillery, rocket launchers and troops to the five islands.
The regime of Kim Jong-Il, which has staged two atomic bomb tests since 2006, ramped up tensions when it boasted Tuesday about a new nuclear facility that experts say could be used to produce weapons-grade uranium.
Diplomats at the United Nations and elsewhere struggled to find common ground on whether to punish Pyongyang or seek to engage it in new talks.
China has blocked attempts at a UN Security Council condemnation of its ally, several diplomats said.
“Council talks have come to a standstill,” one said. “It is now very likely that the Security Council will do nothing about North Korea.”
Beijing has instead proposed that the six parties to long-stalled North Korean denuclearisation talks — the two Koreas, the United States, China, Russia and Japan — hold an emergency meeting on the crisis.
But Washington, Seoul and Tokyo have been cool to the proposal.
US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and South Korean Foreign Minister Kim Sung-Hwan reconfirmed their united stand in talks on the sidelines of a Kazakhstan summit, said the foreign ministry in Seoul.
“As for the resumption of six-party talks, the two shared the view that the North must show a responsible attitude toward its provocative acts and prove its willingness for denuclearisation with actions and thus create favourable atmosphere for the resumption of the talks,” the official said.
Shuttle diplomacy was going on elsewhere.
Envoys from North Korea and Japan were visiting Beijing, China's top foreign policy official Dai Bingguo was expected to head to North Korea this week, and Russia's deputy nuclear envoy was headed for Seoul.
Channel News Asia