Jets roared off a supercarrier in US-South Korean war games yesterday, as the US and two crucial Asian allies agreed to talk in Washington about North Korea’s attack on a South Korean island and the North’s nuclear weapons programs.
Although North Korea kept up its sharp rhetoric — the country warned that the military drills could trigger “full-blown war” — the chairman of North Korea’s parliament arrived in Beijing for talks with leaders in the country’s only major ally, China.
A Japanese envoy was also expected in China as a week of soaring tensions sparked by an artillery barrage that killed four South Koreans gave way to signs of emerging diplomacy.
It was unclear if the visit by North Korea’s Choe Thae-bok to Beijing would lead to any diplomatic solution. China proposed emergency regional talks earlier this week, but South Korea, the US and Japan gave a cool response.
Even as Choe traveled to Beijing, the North reminded the world it was forging ahead with its nuclear efforts. Pyongyang said yesterday that it’s operating a modern uranium enrichment plant equipped with thousands of centrifuges. The main Rodong Sinmun daily said in an editorial that the North is also building light-water reactors.
The commentary, carried by the official Korean Central news agency, said the uranium enrichment is entirely for peaceful purposes.
The North first revealed the program early last month to a visiting US scientist. A light-water nuclear power reactor is ostensibly for civilian energy purposes, but it gives the North a reason to enrich uranium. Uranium enrichment would give the North a second way to make nuclear bombs, in addition to its known plutonium-based program.
North Korea has pushed for renewed international talks on receiving much-needed aid in return for commitments to dismantle nuclear programs, and its recent aggression could reflect frustration that those talks remain stalled.
The North unleashed an artillery barrage on a South Korean island Nov. 23 that hit civilian areas, marking a new level of hostility along the contested maritime border between the Koreas. The attack killed two civilians and two marines.
In a major address on Monday, South Korean President Lee Myung-bak pledged a tough -response if the North carries out any further attacks.
Foreign ministers from South Korea, the US and Japan are to meet in Washington early this month to discuss the shelling and North Korea’s nuclear program, according to Seoul’s Foreign Ministry.
Despite the diplomacy, tension in the region remained high.
WARNING OF WAR
Yesterday, the North’s propaganda machine issued a warning that the South Korea-US drills, involving a nuclear-powered US supercarrier, could trigger a “full-blown war” on the peninsula.
A heavy fog engulfed the USS George Washington supercarrier during yesterday’s drills. The carrier’s fog horn boomed out as US aircraft took off and landed in quick succession.
The maneuvers are aimed at building “readiness and capability” to deter against “North Korea and their provocations,” US Rear Admiral Dan Cloyd said. “And we hope that being here side-by-side with our [South Korean] allies will deter them,” he said.
On the streets of Pyongyang, North Koreans spoke with pride of their military.
“Those who like fire are bound to be punished with fire,” Kim Yong-jun, a Pyongyang resident, told -international broadcaster APTN.