Hu tells Obama Korea tension could go out of control


BEIJING/SEOUL: Chinese President Hu Jintao on Monday warned US President Barack Obama that tensions on the Korean peninsula could spiral out of control if not dealt with properly, their first discussion on the issue since the North shelled the South nearly two weeks ago.
Analysts said Hu’s comments showed a greater sense of urgency in the Chinese leadership over the mounting tension and also an attempt to avoid to the perception that Beijing is siding with its ally Pyongyang to face off against the United States, Japan and South Korea whose foreign ministers meet later in the day to discuss the North Korea situation.
The White House said Obama, in a telephone call with Hu, urged Beijing to work with the United States and others to “send a clear message to North Korea that its provocations are unacceptable”.
China, the chair of stalled international nuclear talks with Pyongyang, is not invited to the US-Japan-South Korea talks in Washington. But the three are expected to discuss Beijing’s proposal for emergency regional talks on the crisis.
“The phone call itself could be an attempt to avoid the perception prior to the meeting between South Korea, the US and Japan, that it is those three countries on one side facing off against China and Russia on North Korea,” said Sun Zhe, director of the Center for U.S-China Relations at Tsinghua University in Beijing.
The conversation between Obama and Hu took place as South Korea started live-firing naval exercises, 13 days after the North shelled Yeonpyeong island close to a disputed maritime demarcation line.
“Especially with the present situation, if not dealt with properly, tensions could well rise on the Korean peninsula or spin out of control, which would not be in anyone’s interest,” Hu said, according to a Chinese foreign ministry statement. “The most pressing task at present is to calmly deal with the situation,” Hu added, according to the ministry’s website.
China faces calls from the United States and its allies to do more to curb its impoverished ally North Korea after the artillery attack on Yeonpyeong island, which killed four people.
Hu said China expressed “deep regret” about the deaths. Beijing has refused to apportion blame for the incident.
“We need an easing (of tensions), not a ratcheting up; dialogue, not confrontation; peace, not war,” Hu was quoted as telling Obama.
A draft of the statement expected to be issued by the foreign ministers of Japan, South Korea and the United States after their Monday meeting – and which was reported by Japanese broadcaster NHK – says the three nations expect China to press North Korea to fulfill “responsibilities that had been set in the six-party talks” or abandoning its nuclear weapons programme.
The statement would also condemn the attack, NHK said.
Tensions on the peninsula have risen to their highest level in decades after the Yeonpyeong attack, which came days after the North revealed it had made significant advances in its nuclear programme.
“China is gravely worried about the situation on the peninsula because if large-scale conflict were to erupt on its border, China would face enormous political and strategic problems,” said Shi Yinhong, director of the Centre on American Studies at Renmin University.
“I can’t say it (the phone call) is China’s last desperate effort, but it does highlight China’s sense of urgency toward the situation.”
Analysts say Pyongyang’s latest provocations could be driven by a number of factors including internal politics and its repeated use of threats and violence for leverage to win aid at talks.
Two years ago, North Korea walked out of aid-for disarmament talks — which had brought together the two Koreas, host China, the United States, Japan and Russia. Pyongyang has said it now wants to restart them, and has won the backing of Beijing and Moscow.
But Washington, Seoul and Tokyo say they will return only when the North shows it is sincere about denuclearising.
Earlier on Monday, South Korea started nationwide live-fire naval drills in disputed waters off the west coast, ignoring Pyongyang’s warnings that they showed Seoul was “hell-bent” on starting war.