Top U.S. military officer presses China over North Korea

WASHINGTON Wed Dec 1, 2010 6:43pm EST

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - China's push for new talks with North Korea is no substitute for action after Pyongyang's deadly attack on a South Korean island, and Beijing should use its influence to calm the situation, the top U.S. military officer said on Wednesday.

Admiral Mike Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said North Korea's "lethal and unprovoked" artillery attack on the South Korean island of Yeonpyeong last week was "unacceptable" and threatened the stability of the region.

The attack, the heaviest North Korean bombardment of the South since the 1950-53 Korean War, killed two civilians and two marines and destroyed dozens of houses. South Korean troops fired back minutes afterwards, causing unknown damage.

China has called for a resumption of six-party talks with North Korea over its nuclear program as a way of easing tensions. The foreign ministers of the United States, Japan and South Korea are expected to meet in Washington on Monday to discuss North Korea, U.S. officials said on Wednesday.

The officials, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said Monday's meeting was expected to touch upon North Korea and other regional security issues and to include U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, Japanese Foreign Minister Seiji Maehara and South Korean Foreign Kim Sung-hwan.

Mullen, speaking at a forum on the resumption U.S.-China military-to-military ties, said the United States looked forward to China "assuming its responsibilities for global problem-solving commensurate with its growing capabilities."

"China shares a relationship with the North that is not matched anywhere else in the world. They have much influence and therefore responsibility," he said in a speech at the Center for American Progress think tank.

"Beijing's call for consultations will not substitute for action and I do not believe we should continue to reward North Korea's provocative and destabilizing behavior with bargaining or new incentives," Mullen said. "China is uniquely placed to guide North Korea to a less dangerous place."

SOLIDARITY AND DETERRENCE

Analysts have pointed to several possible motivations for the attack by North Korea, which came months after Pyongyang sank a South Korean navy ship killing 46 sailors and days after it unveiled a new uranium enrichment facility to a visiting U.S. nuclear scientist.

Some analysts say the attack was Pyongyang's attempt to force the resumption of international negotiations that could bring it aid. Others saw it as an attempt to boost the military credentials of the country's leader-in-waiting, Kim Jong-un, the youngest son of ailing leader Kim Jong-il.

Six-party talks aimed at ending North Korea's nuclear program were suspended in December 2008 and have been on hold since then. Pyongyang has indicated it was willing to resume the dialogue, but Washington and Seoul have pressed for it to first take steps to demonstrate a change of behavior.

The United States and South Korea wrapped up a four-day naval exercise on Wednesday that included the aircraft carrier USS George Washington and aimed to show U.S. solidarity with the South following the attack last week.

Mullen said they were aimed at sending a "very powerful signal" of both deterrence and solidarity, adding "we stand strongly with South Korea and remain strongly committed to support South Korea in defense of their territory."

U.S.-China relations have been strained throughout much of 2010, with the two sides clashing over issues from trade and currency to human rights and climate change.

But Beijing and Washington recently agreed to resume military-to-military ties after a six-month break and analysts are hopeful of further improvements to ensure a smooth state visit to the United States by Chinese President Hu Jintao in January.

Mullen said he hoped the resumption of military ties with China would help the two sides better judge each other's intentions "through deep, broad and continuous military-to-military engagement."

He said he would like the senior military leadership of the two countries to interact more frequently so the United States can understand why China is developing some military capabilities that appear to assume Washington is the enemy.

"Why are you developing these capabilities other than thinking that we're the enemy and we're the ones you're going to get in a fight with?" he asked.

"Those are the kinds of discussions I can't have right now because I'm not sitting down with them."

(Editing by Todd Eastham)