UNITED NATIONS (AP) — World powers trying to defuse tensions between North and South Korea met in an emergency session of the U.N. Security Council on Sunday, but diplomats said China objects to the North being singled out for criticism over two deadly attacks this year that have helped send relations to their lowest point in decades.
China and Russia, the countries with the closest ties to North Korea, have expressed concern about the South Korean military’s plans to conduct one-day, live-fire drills by Tuesday on the same front-line island the North shelled last month as the South conducted a similar exercise.
The United States supports South Korea, a staunch ally, and says any country has a right to train for self-defense.
The North warned of a “catastrophe” if South Korea goes ahead with the drills. The reclusive communist government in Pyongyang said it would strike back harder than it did last month, when two South Korean marines and two civilians were killed on Yeonpyeong Island.
South Korea says the drills are routine, defensive in nature and should not be considered threatening.
Russia called for the Security Council meeting, and Moscow proposed a draft statement that would have the U.N.’s most powerful body call on North Korea and South Korea “to exercise maximum restraint” and urge immediate diplomatic efforts to reduce tensions. It would also ask Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon to appoint an envoy “to consult on urgent measures” to peacefully settle the crisis.
Most council members, including the United States which holds the rotating council presidency this month, viewed the Russian draft as unfairly equating the actions of the two Koreas, according to council diplomats. They spoke on condition of anonymity because the talks are taking place in private.
The United States, Britain, France and many others on the 15-nation body demanded that the council condemn North Korea for the Nov. 23 shelling of Yeonpyeong island that killed four people, and the March 26 sinking of the South Korean warship Cheonan, which killed 46 sailors and was blamed on a North Korean torpedo, the diplomats said.
During more than five hours of closed-door negotiations, the diplomats said Russia showed “flexibility” on a compromise text that included a condemnation of North Korea. But China refused to agree to any condemnation of the North and even opposed including the name of Yeonpyeong Island, insisting that the statement refer to events of Nov. 23, the diplomats said.
The council then moved into a private meeting in its formal chamber so North Korea and South Korea could make their case to members, the diplomats said.
Despite China’s apparent staunch opposition to any condemnation, the diplomats said they haven’t given up hope of a compromise.
The council began meeting shortly after 11 a.m. EST (1600 GMT) and heard a briefing from U.N. political chief B. Lynn Pascoe on the situation in the Koreas.
The council diplomat said Pascoe echoed Ban, who on Friday called the Nov. 23 attack on the tiny island of Yeonpyeong “one of the gravest provocations since the end of (the) Korean War.”
Ban was South Korea’s foreign minister before becoming secretary-general in 2007. He said he is following events closely and is seriously concerned over the rising tensions.
The Russian draft presidential statement circulated to Security Council members and obtained by The Associated Press does not mention either the Nov. 23 attack or the Cheonan sinking.
It stresses the need for efforts “to ensure a de-escalation of tension” between the two Koreas and a “resumption of dialogue and resolution of all problems dividing them exclusively through peaceful diplomatic means.”
A rival British draft would condemn both attacks and share the secretary-general’s view that the shelling of the island was one of “the gravest provocations” since the Korean War which endangers peace and security in the region and beyond, the diplomats said.
It calls for North Korea to refrain from further attacks and urges all parties to exercise restraint, avoid a further deterioration of relations, and engage in peaceful dialogue and negotiations, the diplomats said.
Russia borders North Korea and after China is considered the country with the closest ties to Pyongyang. Russia’s Foreign Ministry has urged South Korea to cancel the drill to avoid escalating tensions. Both countries are veto-wielding permanent members of the council, along with the U.S., Britain and France.
Russia’s U.N. Ambassador Vitaly Churkin said Saturday the situation on the Korean Peninsula “directly affects the national security interests of the Russian Federation.”
Several bloody naval skirmishes occurred along the western sea border between the two Koreas in recent years, but last month’s assault was the first by the North to target a civilian area since the end of the 1950-53 Korean War. The North does not recognize the U.N.-drawn sea border in the area.
New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson, a frequent unofficial envoy to North Korea and former U.S. ambassador to the U.N., has held three meetings with top leaders in the foreign ministry and military during a four-day visit to Pyongyang. He called for maximum restraint.
“I hope that the U.N. Security Council will pass a strong resolution calling for self-restraint from all sides in order to seek peaceful means to resolve this dispute,” Richardson said in a statement released by his U.S. office late Saturday. “A U.N. resolution could provide cover for all sides that prevents aggressive military action.”
The North’s Foreign Ministry said Saturday that South Korea would face “catastrophe” if the drills take place, in a statement carried by the official Korean Central News Agency.
China, the North’s key ally, has said it is “unambiguously opposed” to any acts that could worsen already-high tensions.
Chinese Foreign Minister Yang Jiechi and his Russian counterpart, Sergei Lavrov, called for restraint from all parties concerned to avoid escalation, according to China’s official Xinhua News Agency.
Associated Press Writers Ahn Young-Joon on Yeonpyeong Island, Kim Kwang-Tae and Hyung-jin Kim in Seoul, David Nowak in Moscow, Veronika Oleksyn in Vienna, Anita Snow at the United Nations and AP Television News cameraman Kim Yong-ho on Yeonpyeong Island contributed to this report.