By: Peter Foster
Nov 26, 2010
America is bringing the Korean peninsula “to the brink of war” North Korea warned on Friday as tension continues to build ahead of a four-day US-South Korean joint war game that starts this weekend.
The latest broadside from the regime of Kim Jong-il was issued as a US carrier battle group led by the nuclear-powered USS George Washington steamed towards the Yellow Sea in a show of deterrent force to Pyongyang.
“The situation on the Korean peninsula is inching closer to the brink of war,” warned a dispatch from the Korean Central News Agency said. “Gone are the days when verbal warnings are served only.” All morning North Korean state television and radio blared out martial music interspersed with official statements about the shelling of South Korean’s Yeonpyeong Island on Tuesday which left four people dead and destroyed houses and parts of a military base.
In a further show of US solidarity with Seoul, Gen. Walter Sharp, the US military commander in South Korea, visited the shelled island, touring burned buildings and stating again that the attack was a violation of the ceasefire that ended the 1950-53 Korean War.
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The US confirmed that Sunday’s joint exercise would go ahead regardless of warnings from Beijing that the war games risk further destabilising an already volatile Korean peninsular.
“The exercises will be held on Sunday as planned and the George Washington is on its way here to arrive on Sunday,” confirmed a spokesman for US Forces Korea.
In South Korea, President Lee Myung-bak appointed his security adviser Lee Hee-Won as his new defence minister following the resignation of the previous minister who was heavily criticised over South Korea’s allegedly slow response to the North’s aggression.
Although President Lee promised not to “escalate” the situation in the immediate aftermath of the attack, his government has faced a barrage of criticism in the media over its failure to respond more harshly, including not ordering air strikes against the North’s artillery.
As tension mounted, there were open diplomatic divisions between China and the US over how to handle North Korea’s belligerence, with officials in Washington confirming that President Obama would be speaking with his Chinese counterpart Hu Jintao in coming days.
China has refused to condemn the attack, a move which was met with anger in Seoul, particularly after China cancelled a visit of its foreign minister Yang Jiechi to the South Korea capital at the last minute on Thursday.
China, as North Korea’s only international ally, is facing growing calls from the US, South Korea, Japan, and Australia to use its influence with Pyongyang, but has so far apparently resisted the calls, only urging on both sides, equally, to show restraint.
Australia’s Foreign Minister Kevin Rudd, a fluent Chinese speaker who has good relations with Beijing, was the latest leader to weigh in, asking China to “step up to the plate” over North Korea, following a telephone conversation with US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton.
“This question goes to the heart of the political and security order of the world, [and] it’s important, I believe, for China to step up to the plate,” Mr Rudd told the Australia Network TV station late on Thursday.
“I won’t go to the detail of the diplomatic conversation [with Mrs Clinton], but I think it’s fair to say that many of us are seeking to impress upon our friends in Beijing the importance of applying much more decisive pressure on the regime in Pyongyang,” he said.
“If the North Koreans continue to act in this provocative way, it’s fair to ask the question, where does that all end in terms of South Korea’s ability to simply continue to turn the other cheek,” Mr Rudd said.
“This, therefore, in terms of the stability of the Peninsula [and] the wider region, including China, means that China has a responsibility to speak very directly to their friends in Pyongyang.”
In a sign of the rising tensions, there was brief panic in the capital Seoul when television reported sounds of artillery fire near Yeonpyeong, the island which was shelled by the North on Tuesday, but a South Korean offical later said the artillery fire was distant and no shells landed in South Korean territory. The South’s official Yonhap news agency said it appeared to be a North Korean drill.
South Korea’s normally resilient financial markets also appeared to be feeling the rising pressure ahead of Sunday’s exercises with South Korean currency, the won down as much as 2.2 percent while the stock market closed 1.3 percent down. “Investors are growing more jittery ahead of the joint military exercise,” said Kim Hyoung-ryoul, a market analyst at NH Investment & Securities. “The key concern is, whether North Korea will again take unforeseen, rash actions.”