Artillery fire keeps Koreas on full alert

BEIJING -- The distant rumble of artillery practice in North Korea sent shell-shocked residents of Yeonpyeong Island scurrying to their bomb shelters Friday as a U.S. aircraft carrier cruised toward the region for military exercises this weekend.

Although the explosions turned out to be training exercises inside North Korea, the reaction underscored the high anxiety levels after an artillery attack Tuesday killed four South Koreans on the island. The North Korean propaganda machine also kept up its unnerving stream of threats Friday, warning it would unleash “a shower of dreadful fire and blow up the bulwark of the enemies.”

The Chinese are also unhappy about the imminent arrival of the George Washington, which is to participate in U.S. and South Korean war games that begin Sunday and are designed to deter North Korea from further attacks.

Chinese Foreign Minister Yang Jiechi spoke by telephone Friday with his South Korean counterpart, Kim Sung-hwan, to express China’s “principled position” -- as South Korea’s Yonhap news agency put it -- about naval exercises in the Yellow Sea.

The George Washington was supposed to participate in joint naval exercises in the Yellow Sea over the summer, but China launched such a strenuous campaign against the presence of the nuclear-powered carrier that the war games were moved farther away.

Those exercises followed a March torpedo attack on a South Korean ship that left 46 sailors dead, for which China refused to hold North Korea accountable.

This time, the Chinese reaction has been more subdued. On Thursday, Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao simply warned against any “provocative military behavior” on the Korean peninsula, without specifying whose behavior he referred to.

Months ago, the U.S. had announced its intention to conduct the upcoming exercises in the Yellow Sea, despite objections from China. But the maneuvers had not been formally scheduled earlier this week when the North Korean artillery barrage occurred.

A U.S. military official said the U.S. had not held off on setting the date for the exercises because China had voiced objections. Nor, he said, did the U.S. delay the maneuvers to give China the opportunity to pressure North Korea.

“This was not an anvil that was held over China’s head,” the officer said, speaking on the condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the matter.

China’s state-controlled press has been curiously silent about the participation of the George Washington in the naval exercises, although some hard-liners have been speaking out against it.

“Sending in an aircraft carrier is only going to make everybody in the neighborhood nervous and is not going to help the United States to achieve their goals. Nothing good can come out of it,” said Xu Guangyu, a retired military officer who is now an analyst with the China Arms Control and Disarmament Association.

Others were more cautious, a reflection of the debate among Chinese scholars about the continuing misbehavior of its often-wayward ally, North Korea.

Zhang Liangui, a professor at the Party School of the Chinese Communist Party Central Committee and one of the most prominent Korea scholars in China, said in response to a question about the deployment of the carrier: “We have to admit, there are many problems that can’t be solved unless the United States is involved.”

Beijing has come under much criticism abroad for failing to rein in North Korea’s Kim Jong Il, who made an unprecedented two trips this year to China, where he received a red-carpet welcome at the highest levels.