U.N. Security Council Meets on Korea Tensions

South Korean policemen wearing gas masks stand guard during a civil defence drill at an apartment village in Paju near the Demilitarized Zone (DMZ) separating the two Koreas, on December 15, 2010.
Jung Yeon-Je/AFP/Getty Images
Last Updated 3:50 p.m. ET

The U.N. Security Council met in emergency session Sunday amid rising tensions on the Korean Peninsula and a North Korean warning of a "catastrophe" if South Korea goes ahead with a live-fire drill.

Diplomats were locked in lengthy negotiations behind closed doors, reports CBS News foreign affairs analyst Pamela Falk from the U.N.

Russia called for the meeting, and Moscow wants the U.N.'s most powerful body to adopt a statement calling on North Korea and South Korea "to exercise maximum restraint" and urging immediate diplomatic efforts to reduce tensions.

Falk said delegates were trying to find a compromise on a press statement that will, at best, do very little to resolve the eyeball-to-eyeball confrontation between North and South Korea in the Yellow Sea, with South Korean military exercises still scheduled for Monday or Tuesday.

South Korea's military plans to conduct one-day, live-fire drills by Tuesday on the same front-line island the North shelled last month as the South conducted a similar exercise. The North warned that the drills would cause it to strike back harder than it did last month, when two South Korean marines and two civilians were killed on Yeonpyeong Island.

South Korea says the drills are routine, defensive in nature and should not be considered threatening. The U.S. supports Seoul, a staunch ally, and says any country has a right to train for self-defense. But Russia and China, fellow veto-wielding permanent members of the 15-nation Security Council, have expressed concern.

Russia's Foreign Ministry has urged South Korea to cancel the drill to avoid escalating tensions.

Russia borders North Korea and after China is considered the country with the closest ties to the reclusive communist government in Pyongyang. Russia's U.N. Ambassador Vitaly Churkin said Saturday the situation on the Korean Peninsula "directly affects the national security interests of the Russian Federation."

With 28,000 U.S. forces in South Korea, the Obama administration is hoping to avert a military confrontation, writes Falk.

The U.S. delegation, headed by Ambassador Susan Rice, is backing South Korea's right to hold the planned military exercises in the Yellow Sea, adds Falk, and is looking for a stern statement about North Korea's recent military attack against Yeongpyeong Island.

"At the U.N. Security Council on Sunday, in emergency session, the negotiations are focused on whether to demand restraint by both North and South Korea — the position favored by the U.S., U.K. and France — or to condemn North Korea's recent military attacks, the position favored by China and Russia," said Falk.

"Emerging from the Security Council meeting on Sunday, Russian Ambassador Vitaly Churkin expressed optimism that a press statement — the weakest form of document the Security Council can produce — would be issued, meaning that there would be some meeting of the minds among those nations backing the North and those supporting the South in the Koreas dispute," Falk reports.

"One of many face-saving ways out of the confrontation that North Korea and its backers (including Russia and China) want is for South Korea to postpone the military exercises," said Falk.

But the government in Seoul is feeling increasing pressure to respond both to the March 26 sinking of the South Korean warship Cheonan, which killed 46 sailors and was blamed on a North Korean torpedo, and the November 23 artillery attack on Yeonpyeong Island.

"New Mexico Governor Bill Richardson, now in Pyongyang on a non-official visit, has proposed that a military hotline be created between North Korean and South Korean forces, and a longer-term military commission be established to monitor disputes," Falk added.

A Russian draft presidential statement circulated to Security Council members and obtained by The Associated Press stresses the need for efforts "to ensure a de-escalation of tension" between the two Koreas and a "resumption of dialogue and resolution of all problems dividing them exclusively through peaceful diplomatic means."

It asks Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon to immediately send an envoy to both countries "to consult on urgent measures to settle peacefully the current crisis situation in the Korean Peninsula."

The council began meeting behind closed doors shortly after 11 a.m. EST (1600 GMT) and heard a briefing from U.N. political chief B. Lynn Pascoe on the situation in the Koreas.

Several bloody naval skirmishes occurred along the western sea border between the two Koreas in recent years, but last month's assault was the first by the North to target a civilian area since the end of the 1950-53 Korean War. The North does not recognize the U.N.-drawn sea border in the area.

The North claims South Korea fired artillery toward its territorial waters before it unleashed shells on the island on Nov. 23, while the South says it launched shells southward, not toward North Korea, as part of routine exercises.

New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson, a frequent unofficial envoy to North Korea and former U.S. ambassador to the U.N., has held three important meetings with top leaders in the foreign ministry and military during a four-day visit to Pyongyang and also called for maximum restraint.

"I hope that the U.N. Security Council will pass a strong resolution calling for self-restraint from all sides in order to seek peaceful means to resolve this dispute," Richardson said in a statement released by his U.S. office late Saturday. "A U.N. resolution could provide cover for all sides that prevents aggressive military action."

According to South Korea's Yonhap news agency, North Korea has raised military readiness of its artillery unit along the west coast.

It cited an unidentified South Korean government official who was also quoted as saying some fighter jets that had been inside the air force hangar in the west coast also came out to the ground.

A South Korean Defense Ministry official declined to confirm the report, citing the issue's sensitivity. He asked not to be identified as he was not authorized to speak to the media.

The South Korean military will hold the drills on Monday if weather permits, the official said, without elaborating.

The North's Foreign Ministry said Saturday that South Korea would face "catastrophe" if the drills take place, in a statement carried by the official Korean Central News Agency.

China, the North's key ally, has said it is "unambiguously opposed" to any acts that could worsen already-high tensions.

Chinese Foreign Minister Yang Jiechi and his Russian counterpart, Sergei Lavrov, called for restraint from all parties concerned to avoid escalation, according to China's official Xinhua News Agency.

Marines carrying rifles conducted routine patrols Sunday on Yeonpyeong Island. About 240 residents, officials and journalists remain on Yeonpyeong, said Lim Byung-chan, an official from Ongjin County, which governs the island. He said there is no immediate plan to order a mandatory evacuation to the mainland.

Amid security jitters, nearly 800 out of 1,300 civilians living on the island moved to unsold apartments in Gimpo, west of Seoul, on Sunday, according to Ongjin County officials.