SEOUL, South Korea — As the U.S. and South Korea ended war manoeuvrs following North Korea’s deadly bombardment of a front-line island, a North Korean soldier at the heavily armed border said he hopes for peace.
The soldier, interviewed in the Panmunjom village inside the Demilitarized Zone, told the television news agency APTN that he was aware of the attack on the South Korean island and hoped tensions between the two sides would be eased “as soon as possible, in a peaceful way.”
“I know that there were casualties on the South side,” Lieutenant Choe Song Il told the APTN crew from Pyongyang. “I hope that such military conflict between North and South should never happen again.”
The comments were unusually candid given the tensions between the rivals, especially since the North’s attack on Yeonpyeong Island on Nov. 23, which killed four South Koreans and wounded 18.
His comments came as China tried to restart the aid-for-nuclear-disarmament talks coveted by the North. But Washington, Tokyo and Seoul are wary of talking with the North.
Beijing wants emergency talks among the six nations who have negotiated over North Korea’s nuclear program — the two Koreas, China, Russia, Japan and the United States — to discuss tensions embroiling the region after the attack.
“The parties concerned should keep calm and exercise restraint, and work to bring the situation back onto the track of dialogue and negotiation,” Chinese Foreign Minister Yang Jiechi said, according to the Chinese official Xinhua News Agency.
After walking away from the six-nation talks in April 2009, Pyongyang has shown it is now eager to restart them to gain much-needed fuel oil and aid in exchange for nuclear disarmament.
Seoul says North Korea must show real commitment to disarm and noting that the North has gone in the wrong direction with its revelation late last month of a new uranium enrichment facility that would give North Korea a second way to make nuclear bombs.
U.S.-South Korean drills involving a nuclear-powered supercarrier in western waters south of the disputed border were set to end Wednesday. The drills were largely aimed at testing communications systems and didn’t have live fire, but North Korea expressed its fury over them.
A South Korean Joint Chiefs of Staff officer said that Seoul and Washington are pushing to conduct new joint military drills this month. The officer, speaking on condition of anonymity, citing agency rules, would only say that the drills would take place near the Korean peninsula.
South Korea’s military separately plans what it calls routine weeklong naval live-fire exercises from 29 sites next week. Similar naval firing drills will follow in coming weeks, but Yeonpyeong Island and other front-line islands have not been immediately designated as firing sites, the officer said.
South Korea’s military is deploying short-range surface-to-air missiles in Yeonpyeong to bolster its defence, Yonhap news agency reported. Military officials declined to discuss the report, but the government has said it will boost troops and weaponry there.
Tokyo and Washington have backed Seoul in its cool response to China’s proposal for emergency talks, and the three powers arranged to meet in Washington — rather than Beijing — next week to discuss North Korea in a move that clearly underlined the fault line in the “six-party” negotiations.
U.S. officials said Washington was ruling out the six-party talks for the time being. The United States wants “China to urge North Korea to stop the destabilization,” White House spokesman Robert Gibbs said. “But I think there has to be a seriousness on the part of the North Koreans to get back to these talks.”
Japan, too, rejected an immediate round of aid-for-disarmament talks, but sent its envoy to the North Korean nuclear discussions to China.
China, belatedly waking up to its role as North Korea’s mentor, invited high-ranking North Korean official Choe Thae Bok, an aide to leader Kim Jong Il, to Beijing for talks. Kyodo reported from the Chinese capital that State Councilor Dai Bingguo was to visit North Korea to urge North Korea to join the emergency meeting. The agency cited unnamed diplomatic sources.