A powerful flotilla of a dozen American and South Korean warships, led by the US aircraft carrier George Washington, wrapped up its first day of war games in the Yellow Sea yesterday, against a background of menacing moves by North Korea and efforts by China to tamp down the tensions.
While the flotilla churned the waters well south of the scene of North Korea's attack last week on a small South Korean island, satellite imagery revealed that North Korean forces had rocket systems ready for firing and surface-to-air missiles on launch pads near the North Korean shoreline.
On Yeonpyeong island, eight miles below the North Korean coast, the sound of occasional artillery bursts was enough for defence officials to send everyone scurrying briefly into shelters.
By the end of the day, however, officials had another solution, ordering the evacuation of all civilians, notably more than 100 journalists who had been there for two days when all ferries were cancelled due to heavy seas. Defence officials said the reason for the evacuation was the danger of another attack, especially with the North Koreans going through training exercises that many found unnerving.
Curiously, however, fears of a sudden surprise attack were not borne out by a seemingly harsh promise from the North to deliver "a brutal military blow on any provocation which violates our territorial waters".
That tough statement suggested that North Korea was not likely to open fire as long as no military operations were conducted near the Northern Limit Line, between Yeonpyeong island and four other South Korean islands, and the North Korean coast.
In any case, the war games, including attacks on dummy targets by fighter planes roaring off the deck of the George Washington, were going on about 50 miles south of the general area of hostilities – and far out of artillery or rocket range.
They will last only four days, but China views them as an affront to its putative role as the dominant power over the Yellow Sea.
Chinese State Councillor Dai Bingguo conveyed China's concerns in a two-hour conversation yesterday with South Korea's President Lee Myung-bak when he mooted the idea of an "emergency" six-party talks in which China would host envoys from the US, Japan, Russia and the two Koreas. Simultaneously in Beijing, China's nuclear negotiator, Wu Dawei, said: "The Chinese side, after careful studies, proposes emergency consultations among the nuclear envoys in early December in Beijing to exchange views on major issues of concern."
A spokesman for President Lee immediately poured cold water on the proposal, saying Lee had told his senior Chinese visitor that now was "not an appropriate time" for such a discussion. While reports were going out that Lee had rejected the proposal, his office issued a qualifying statement promising to give it "careful consideration".