China shields North Korea at crisis summit

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China has swatted away demands from Japan and South Korea to condemn North Korea over the sinking of a navy frigate, saying they should instead stop tensions on the Korean Peninsula from escalating into war.

"We have to focus on preventing possible armed clashes between the two sides," the Chinese Premier, Wen Jiabao, reportedly said yesterday during a summit with the South Korean President, Lee Myung-bak, and Japan's Prime Minister, Yukio Hatoyama. The annual summit on the island of Jeju was scheduled to discuss mainly trade issues before it was hijacked by the Korean crisis.

Beijing has resisted pressure to fall into line behind the US and its allies in demanding sanctions against the North for allegedly torpedoing the Cheonan warship on 26 March. The refusal is likely to anger South Korea, which needs Chinese support when it takes the incident before the UN Security Council next month. Pyongyang's main trading partner and only major ally, Beijing has a veto over the council's decisions.

Yesterday's meeting took place as about 100,000 people demonstrated against the US and its "puppet" Seoul ally in Pyongyang. Choe Yong-Rim, the chief secretary of the city's party committee, told the crowd they should prepare for invasion, reported the South's Yonhap news agency. "President Lee is making a frantic effort to provoke a new war," he said.

A multinational probe concluded this month that a North Korean submarine sank the Cheonan, killing 46 sailors. But Pyongyang denies sinking the warship and says that the incident was "cooked up" to start a war.

Mr Wen will come under renewed pressure today to join the international chorus against Pyongyang when he again meets Mr Hatoyama for bilateral talks in Tokyo.