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(News Focus) China tries to save face with six-party talks offer
By Chang Jae-soon
SEOUL, Nov. 28 (Yonhap) -- China's official offer to convene six-party talks to defuse tensions over North Korea's artillery strike is an attempt by Beijing to save face amid mounting international calls to exercise its leverage over Pyongyang, analysts said Sunday.

   China's chief nuclear negotiator Wu Dawei proposed at a news conference in Beijing that the chief delegates of the six-nations -- the two Koreas, China, Japan, Russia and the U.S. -- meet in early December to "exchange views on major issues of concern to the parties at present."

   China made the offer, apparently knowing that South Korea was going to reject it.

   Earlier in the day, Wu and Chinese State Councilor Dai Bingguo held talks with South Korean President Lee Myung-bak to curb tensions soaring after North Korea's deadly shelling Tuesday of South Korea's Yeonpyeong Island that killed two marines and two civilians.

   During the meeting, the Chinese officials stressed the importance of dialogue and called for resuming the long-stalled six-party talks, but South Korean officials said it is not the time to discuss the matter.

   South Korea's presidential office effectively rebuffed the Chinese offer immediately.

   "There was a mention by the Chinese side about six-party talks, but it was not discussed seriously," chief presidential spokesman Hong Sang-pyo told reporters. South Korea "made clear that it is not an appropriate time to discuss" the matter, he said.

   Seoul's foreign ministry gave a more diplomatic response, saying that the proposal "should be studied very carefully" and that creating the right atmosphere for six-party talks is more important than convening the negotiations themselves. But the reaction was also seen as a de facto rejection.

   "In order to make substantial progress in North Korea's denuclearization through six-party talks, creating the right conditions for resuming the six-party talks should be the priority," the ministry said in a statement.

   The stance reflects South Korea's deep skepticism that North Korea has capitalized on the nuclear talks to win economic and political concessions from its negotiating partners without any genuine intentions to give up its atomic weapons programs.

   "Now, the international community is looking askew at China," said Choi Choon-heum, a senior researcher at the Korea Institute for National Unification in Seoul, referring to international calls for Beijing to use its influence to rein in North Korea.

   "For China, there is no other option but six-party talks if it wants to save face," he said.

   Choi also said that the Chinese proposal amounts to a "diplomatic gaffe" because Beijing went ahead and officially made the proposal even if it knew that South Korea was going to turn it down. But the Chinese move also shows it is "in a hurry," he said.

   South Korean officials have said that they could not agree to resume the six-nation talks with North Korea "as if nothing had happened" at a time when innocent civilians and soldiers were killed in an unprovoked attack by the communist neighbor.

   Tuesday's shelling marked the first time the North attacked South Korean soil and civilian areas since the 1950-53 Korean War. Previous provocations had been limited to naval skirmishes near their tense Yellow Sea border or gunfights across their heavily armed land border.

   The shelling also came as anger still lingers in South Korea over the March sinking of a South Korean warship blamed on the provocative regime in Pyongyang, which killed 46 sailors.

   "It is disappointing," Kim Tae-woo, a senior researcher at Seoul's state-run Korea Institute for Defense Analyses, said of the Chinese proposal. "China appears to be trying to seek South Korea's cooperation for its own national interests ... It is doubtful whether China has any intention to mediate."

   China is considered to have greater leverage over Pyongyang than any other nation as the impoverished nation's biggest provider of food and energy aid as well as diplomatic support. But convincing Beijing to use the influence has proven as difficult as convincing Pyongyang to end its bad behavior.

   Experts have said that China is concerned that instability in North Korea could hurt its economic growth, trigger a massive influx of refugees from the North and lead to the emergence of a unified Korean Peninsula under South Korean and U.S. control across its border.

   In reaction to the North's unprovoked shelling, China has used its usual phrase of "calm and restraint" without blaming its communist neighbor -- the same phrase that the country had repeatedly used when it rejected Seoul's plea for help in censuring the North at the U.N. Security Council for the March sinking of a warship.

   China's dialogue proposal also came as South Korea and the U.S. launched massive naval exercises in the Yellow Sea as a show of force aimed at deterring North Korea from further provocations. Beijing has expressed concern about the drills involving a U.S. aircraft carrier.

   Beijing is very sensitive about such maneuvers in waters close to it, and strongly protested earlier this year when Seoul and Washington announced massive anti-submarine exercise plans in response to March's ship sinking.

   "China also appears to be trying to overshadow the military exercises with its dialogue offer," said Choi, the researcher at the Korea Institute for National Unification.

   jschang@yna.co.kr
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