Yeonpyeong (South Korea): China called for emergency talks on resolving a crisis on the Korean peninsula on Sunday, and Seoul and Tokyo said they would study the proposal, as the US. and South Korean militaries started a massive drill.
Beijing`s move to bring the two Koreas to the negotiating table comes after global pressure on China to take a more responsible role in the standoff and try to rein in ally Pyongyang.
China made clear that the talks would not amount to a resumption of six-party disarmament discussions which North Korea walked out of two years ago and declared dead. South Korea said it would carefully consider China`s suggestion.
Both Beijing and Pyongyang have been pressing regional powers to return to talks, in some form or other, for the past few months, in a move analysts say is designed to extract concessions.
China, which agreed with South Korea that the situation was "worrisome," suggested the emergency talks for December among North and South Korea, host China, the United States, Japan and Russia. It did not say whether Pyongyang had agreed to join.
Japan was non-committal. "We want to respond cautiously while cooperating closely with South Korea and the United States," Kyodo news agency quoted Deputy Chief Cabinet Secretary Tetsuro Fukuyama as saying.
Beijing has longstanding bonds with Pyongyang, and has sought to shield its small, poor neighbor from a backlash that China fears could draw an even more ferocious reaction from North Korea and dangerously destabilize the region.
Critics in Washington and other capitals say China`s approach amounts to coddling a dangerous nuclear-armed state.
South Korea`s marine commander on Saturday vowed "thousand-fold" revenge for the North Korean attack. North Korea said that if there had been civilian deaths, they were "very regrettable," but that South Korea should be blamed for using a human shield.
It also said the United States should be blamed for "orchestrating" the whole sequence of events to justify sending an aircraft carrier to join the maritime maneuvers.
Yonhap new agency in Seoul said North Korea, whose ailing leader, Kim Jong-il, is preparing to hand over power to his youngest son, had moved surface-to-air and surface-to-surface missiles to frontline areas, days after it shelled Yeonpyeong killing four people. The North`s official KCNA news agency warned of retaliatory action if its territory is violated.
South Korea`s Defense Ministry told journalists to leave the island on Sunday because the situation was "bad." Many residents evacuated earlier said they did not want to return.
In Seoul, life carried on normally for the city`s more than 10 million residents, with downtown shopping districts jammed with people despite the freezing temperatures, and cafes decked with Christmas decorations doing brisk business.
"I am worried, but not that worried that I need to stay at home," said Eunhye Kim, an usher showing people from a packed theater in the capital. "They don`t really want to make war ... there`s no gain for either side."
Pressure on China
The around-the-clock exercises, in waters well south of the disputed maritime boundary off the west coast, are being held in the face of misgivings by China and threats of all-out war from North Korea.
The chairman of North Korea`s Supreme People`s Assembly will visit China from Tuesday, the official Xinhua news agency said.
China has not taken sides in the conflict and declined to blame North Korea, unlike the United States, for the sinking of a South Korean naval vessel in March.
"We ask that China make a contribution to peace on the Korean peninsula by taking a more fair and responsible position on South-North Korea ties," South Korean President Lee Myung-bak said he had told a visiting Chinese delegation.
Washington says the four-day drill is intended as a deterrent after the worst assault on South Korea since the end of the Korean War in 1953.
Seoul expects jitters in financial markets to settle in the short term unless North Korea carries out further provocations, Yonhap quoted a senior Finance Ministry official as saying.
The nuclear-powered carrier USS George Washington, which carries 75 warplanes and has a crew of over 6,000, has joined the exercises and will be accompanied by at least four other US warships, an official from U.S. Forces Korea said.
South Korea has deployed three destroyers, frigates and anti-submarine aircraft, Yonhap reported.