South Korea said Thursday it will fire artillery from a front-line island shelled last month by North Korea, a move that risked further confrontation even as a U.S. governor traveled to the North in a diplomatic effort to cool tensions.
New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson, who has frequently acted as an unofficial envoy to the North, arrived Thursday in Pyongyang after telling reporters in Beijing he expected to be given some sort of message by North Korea.
Meanwhile, in South Korea, the Joint Chiefs of Staffs said in a statement that marines based on Yeonpyeong Island, a tiny fishing community with military bases near the Koreas’ disputed sea border, will stage one-day live-fire drills some time between Saturday and Tuesday. Weather and other factors will determine the exact time.
Similar artillery exercises Nov. 23 were met with a rain of North Korean shells that killed two marines and two construction workers, destroyed homes and shops and raised fears of renewed war between the rivals. The North says the waters around the island are its territory. The assault was the first by the North to target a civilian area since the end of the 1950-53 Korean War.
The South Korean statement said the impending Yeonpyeong drills are part of “routine, justified” exercises that the South regularly conducts to protect its islands off the west coast. Representatives of the American-led U.N. Command that oversees the armistice that ended the Korean War will observe the drills on the island, which is just seven miles (11 kilometers) from North Korean shores.
Marines will fire artillery away from North Korea, toward waters southwest of the island, a Joint Chiefs of Staff officer said on condition of anonymity, citing department rules.
Another Joint Chiefs of Staff officer said that South Korea is fully ready to respond to any North Korean attack. “We are holding the drills with full preparation to deal with” fresh attacks, the officer said, also speaking on condition of anonymity.
Shortly after the South announced the drills, Richardson arrived in North Korea on a flight from Beijing, according to China’s official Xinhua News Agency.
Richardson’s stopover in Beijing came shortly before talks in the Chinese capital between U.S. Deputy Secretary of State James Steinberg and Chinese State Councilor Dai Bingguo. Beijing’s top foreign policy official returned last week from talks in Pyongyang with North Korean leader Kim Jong Il.
A former U.N. ambassador, Richardson often has been an unofficial diplomatic troubleshooter, including missions to secure the release of hostages in Sudan, Iraq and North Korea.
“My hope is that they provide messages that will lower tensions on the Korean peninsula. My message to them will be we need peace, we need to stop some of these aggressive actions, especially with respect to South Korea,” Richardson said at the Beijing airport before flying to Pyongyang.
Richardson, who has made more than half a dozen trips to North Korea, said “when they call me, they always want to send a message of some kind.” Previous missions have resulted in the release of Americans held in the North and the return of the remains of U.S. soldiers killed in the Korean War.
Richardson said he does not know who he will meet yet, but said he had requested a visit to the North’s main nuclear facility at Yongbyon. The Democratic governor, who leaves office at the end of the month, was invited to North Korea by Kim Kye Gwan, who has served as the country’s chief negotiator in stalled six-nation nuclear disarmament talks. Richardson is expected to return to Beijing on Monday.
The U.S. State Department has said Richardson isn’t delivering a message to North Korea for the U.S. government. However, Richardson’s contacts with North Korean officials may provide insights for diplomats trying to persuade North Korea to abandon its nuclear weapons program.
Richardson said he would encourage North Korea to engage in some renewed dialogue, but would not be putting forward any specific framework.
“We’re going to explore what makes sense but the objective here is to try to persuade them to stop some of these strong actions that they’ve taken,” Richardson said.
Pyongyang is believed to be seeking bilateral talks with the U.S. before returning to the six-nation negotiations hosted by China. Those talks also include South Korea, Japan, and Russia.
Richardson said he would talk to President Barack Obama’s administration when he returns.
Pyongyang’s main Rodong Sinmun newspaper, in a commentary carried by the official Korean Central News Agency, blamed the tensions on South Korea’s conservative government and its “policy of confrontation” with the North.
“The ever-deepening distrust and misunderstanding between the North and the South are bound to lead to military clashes,” the paper said Thursday.
Richardson’s trip and Steinberg’s meeting with Dai in Beijing come amid stepped-up diplomatic moves by the United States and regional powers. China has come under growing pressure to push ally North Korea to change its behavior.
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