WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The Japanese, South Korean and U.S. foreign ministers meet on Monday to plot strategy toward an increasingly provocative North Korea in the face of China’s reluctance to try to rein in its sometime ally.
Secretary of State Hillary Clinton meets separately in the U.S. capital with South Korea’s Kim Sung-hwan and Japan’s Seiji Maehara before the three gather at 1 p.m. (1800 GMT) to discuss the North’s nuclear advances and its shelling of a South Korean island.
Seoul has sharply increased its rhetoric over the past week, prompted by growing protests and public opinion polls critical of the conservative government’s perceived weak response to last month’s deadly shelling of Yeonpyeong island.
The November 23 attack, which killed two South Korean civilians and two soldiers, was the first time the North had struck a civilian area on South Korean soil since the end of the 1950-53 Korean war.
Dozens of homes were destroyed in the attack, which the North said was triggered by South Korea firing artillery shells into its waters. The South said its drills were routine, harmless and on its side of the disputed Northern Limit Line.
On Monday, South Korea started a nationwide live-fire naval exercise despite Pyongyang’s warnings against conducting provocative drills in the disputed waters off the west coast of the divided peninsula.
Pyongyang said the latest exercise, expected to last around a week, showed the South was “hell-bent” on setting off a war.
There is no obvious diplomatic path forward on how to ease tensions, particularly given China’s apparent unwillingness to condemn the North at the U.N. Security Council or otherwise exercise such leverage as it has over Pyongyang.
China is the host for so-called six-party talks among the two Koreas, China, Japan, Russia and the United States that yielded a 2005 agreement under which North Korea promised to abandon its nuclear programs but that has since unraveled.
On November 12 the North, which has conducted two nuclear tests and is believed to have enough plutonium for between six and 12 atomic bombs, showed a U.S. nuclear scientist hundreds of centrifuges, giving it a second way to make nuclear weapons.
Pyongyang said it wanted to restart the six-party talks, and has won the backing of Beijing and Moscow, but Washington, Seoul and Tokyo have said they will only return once the North shows it is sincere about denuclearizing.
It is unclear what, if any, tangible action Monday’s U.S., South Korean and Japanese meeting may yield other than a joint statement condemning the North’s shelling and, perhaps, a call for China to do more to restrain its volatile ally.