UNITED NATIONS (Reuters) - The U.N. Security Council met in emergency session on Sunday to try to cool tensions on the Korean Peninsula, but the five big powers were split on whether to publicly blame North Korea for the crisis.
Pyongyang raised an alert for artillery units along its west coast in what appeared to be its latest move in a growing crisis between the two Koreas, Yonhap news agency said, quoting a South Korean government source. The report was issued ahead of a planned live-fire drill by South Korea.
South Korea’s Defense Ministry offered no immediate comment on the Yonhap report. Bad weather has so far delayed the planned firing drill at a disputed border that has enraged Pyongyang.
Both sides have said they will use military means to defend what they say is their territory off the west coast, raising international concern that the standoff could quickly spiral out of control.
The 15 Security Council members were meeting behind closed doors to try to agree on a statement that Russian U.N. Ambassador Vitaly Churkin said he hoped would send a “restraining signal” to both the North and the South.
Western envoys inside the meeting said the five permanent veto-wielding members were split over whether to blame North Korea for the crisis, as the United States, Britain, and France -- along with Japan -- demand, or to urge both sides to avoid acts that could deepen the crisis, as Russia and China want.
The Chinese, North Korea’s staunchest supporters on the council, and Russians reject the idea of assigning blame to Pyongyang, the envoys told Reuters on condition of anonymity.
The U.S., British and French delegations rejected a Russian draft that called for U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon to send an envoy to Seoul and Pyongyang and urged the two sides to exercise “maximum restraint.” Russia and China then revised the text to make it more acceptable to the Western powers.
Western diplomats said the latest Russian and Chinese draft statement condemns a November 23 incident in which North Korean artillery shells killed four people in a South Korean village but does not explicitly blame North Korea for the attack.
However, they said it implicitly blames Pyongyang by referring to a statement by U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon the same day, calling the attack “one of the gravest incidents since the end of the Korean War.” Ban’s statement also made clear North Korea was to blame for the attack.
The new draft is “not perfect but we can probably live with it,” one diplomat said. Although the U.S., British, French and Japanese delegations could accept it, South Korea is unhappy with the draft statement because it does not explicitly condemn the North for attacking the South, he said.
Washington has backed Seoul’s push to go ahead with the planned live-fire drill on Yeonpyeong island, where four South Koreans were killed in last month’s artillery attack.
The drill, within view of the North Korean mainland, is scheduled to take place sometime before Tuesday. U.S. and Chinese officials have described the situation on the Korean Peninsula as “extremely precarious” and a “tinderbox.”
Recent Western attempts to get the Security Council to rebuke Pyongyang over the deadly artillery incident and its nuclear program have been blocked by China.
The U.N. Secretariat distributed to council members a document on an investigation of the November 23 shelling by the so-called U.N. Command, the U.S.-led military forces in South Korea that monitor compliance with the 1953 Armistice Agreement that ended the Korean War.
That probe concluded the South did not violate the armistice with its November 23 military drills in disputed waters, while the North committed a “deliberate and premeditated attack” that was a “serious violation” of the ceasefire, according to the document, which was obtained by Reuters.
North Korea has called the artillery fire drill by the South a suicidal war move that would trigger all-out conflict on the peninsula and said it would strike back in self-defense.
The South has said if it was attacked in the same manner as last month, it would hit back hard with air power and bombs.
Analysts were skeptical the North would carry through with its threats. The North will likely respond by holding a live-fire drill on its side of the tensely guarded sea border, if the South goes ahead with its exercise, they said.
Weather conditions worsened on the normally sleepy Yeonpyeong island, which has been largely abandoned by residents after the November 23 attack.
The South Korean government, widely criticized at home for its perceived weak response to the shelling of the island, remained determined to carry out the exercise. A Defense Ministry official said the weather was the decisive factor.
South Korea’s marines plan to test artillery firing from the island targeting its territorial waters to its southwest, the same type of exercise that North Korea last month called an attack and prompted its shelling of the island.
Concern mounted on the island among the few residents who remained, and anticipation was growing that the drill would take place on Monday.
“I see they have to do what they have to do, but the people here want peace and quiet,” Dan Choon-nam said after a tearful church service. “We want things to be back to how they were.”
Additional reporting by Kim Do-gyun in Yeonpyeong, Chris Buckley in Beijing; writing by Jack Kim and Patrick Worsnip; editing by Anthony Boadle