The UN Security Council was last night urgently seeking to ease renewed tensions between North and South Korea, after convening an emergency meeting to discuss their ongoing dispute.
It was preparing to tell both countries to exercise “maximum restraint” in a row over South Korea's plans for live-fire artillery drills, as the stand-off between them remained at hair-trigger level.
The North has warned of a “disaster” if the South carries out the drills, which are due to take place on the same island shelled by the North last month, in attacks that killed four people.
Bill Richardson, governor of New Mexico and a US special envoy to Pyongyang, warned yesterday that the world was facing “a crisis situation”. Unconfirmed reports in the South Korean state media claim the North had raised its military readiness along the west coast.
A draft UN statement proposed by Russia stressed the need “to ensure a de-escalation of tension”. It was subject to protracted discussions with the Chinese reluctant to condemn North Korea.
The statement called for all disputes to be settled “exclusively through peaceful diplomatic means” and requested that Ban Ki-moon, the Secretary-General, immediately send an envoy to the area.
The artillery drills on Yeonpyeong Island were postponed yesterday due to bad weather, but military officials in Seoul said they still fully intend to complete them, possibly on Monday or Tuesday, with the support of 20 US troops.
The Korean stand-off has dramatically escalated since the North Korean attack, on November 23. It provoked deep public anger in the South, which has promised to retaliate strongly, possibly with air strikes, if the North attacks again.
Mr Ban has called the attack on the tiny island “one of the gravest provocations since the end of the Korean War” in 1953.
On Saturday, North Korea accused the South of deploying the 20 US troops as a “human shield” to guard against attack.
Marines carrying rifles conducted routine patrols Sunday as maritime surveillance aircraft flew overhead. About 240 residents, officials and journalists remained on Yeonpyeong on Sunday.
China is the only member of the UN Security Council to refuse to condemn North Korea, but joined Russia in calls for restraint following talks between Moscow and Beijing over the weekend.