SEOUL, South Korea – South Korea on Friday delayed food and fertilizer shipments to impoverished North Korea until the missile crisis is resolved, even as it pledged to press ahead with high-level talks with Pyongyang next week. A top U.S. envoy agreed with China to coordinate strategy on the North.
North Korea's plans to fire more missiles remained unclear. South Korean officials said another long-range missile may be at a Northern launch site, but they said latest intelligence shows no signs the reclusive regime was getting ready for more tests.
Pyongyang triggered an international furor on Wednesday when it test-fired seven missiles that plunged into the Sea of Japan without causing damage or injury. Japan and the United States have led an effort for the U.N. to impose sanctions on the regime, but China and Russia have called for softer measures.
U.S. Assistant Secretary of State Christopher Hill, dispatched to the region in the wake of Wednesday's missile barrage, met with Chinese officials and won agreement to work together to restore regional calm. Hill said the Chinese, the North's top allies, were plainly displeased by the missile tests.
"They were very clear in their views of the North Korean missile launches, very clear that they have no interest in seeing this happen and do not regard this in any way positively," Hill said just before leaving Beijing for South Korea. He was also expected to visit Japan.
South Korea, which has worked for warmer ties with Pyongyang since a 2000 North-South summit, attempted to take a middle path, withholding aid shipments and rejecting a Northern request for military talks, but also announcing it would hold Cabinet-level meetings with the North next week.
Unification Minister Lee Jong-seok said that Seoul would hold off on plans to send 500,000 tons of rice and 100,000 tons of fertilizer to North Korea, the Unification Ministry quoted him as saying.
"This will continue until there is an exit out of the missile problem," Lee's spokesman, Yang Chang-seok, quoted him as saying, without explaining what would constitute an exit.
The North had requested 450,000 tons of fertilizer this year, of which the South has already shipped 350,000 tons. Pyongyang, which is largely dependent on handouts of food and other supplies to maintain its poverty-stricken population, has also asked for 500,000 tons of rice.
South Korea also turned down a North Korean proposal to hold military talks this week, saying the time was not right. But Cabinet-level talks originally scheduled to start next Tuesday in the southern city of Busan were to go ahead, officials said.
"The government judged that it's necessary to continue with dialogue efforts to resolve the current situation over the North's missile launch," said Lee Kwan-se, a Unification Ministry official.
Uncertainty surrounded North Korea's next step. South Korea's defense agency said an additional long-range Taepodong-2 missile — one of which U.S. officials say was launched on Wednesday — could be at the North's launch site, but that a further test was not imminent.
The North, however, said it had the right to test missiles.
South Korea's Yonhap news agency on Friday quoted Choe Myong Nam, councilor at the North's mission to the U.N. in Geneva, as saying that the launches were successful and could be continued, echoing an earlier statement by North Korea's Foreign Ministry.
"It's an unfair logic to say that somebody can do something and others cannot. The same logic applies to nuclear possession," Choe said. The missile launches are "not intended to strike anyone and it's the North position that missile launches could be continued," he said.
South Korea ordered two South Korean airlines to avoid a flight route near the path of the missiles fired earlier this week. The Civil Aviation Safety Authority told the two airlines, Asiana Airlines and Korean Air, not to use a flight route over the sea between the Korean peninsula and Japan starting Friday until July 11.
The United States kept up its diplomatic drive to forge a common strategy among the main players in the region. On Thursday, the United States said the world must speak with one voice in pressing North Korea to abandon its nuclear weapons and return to multinational talks.
Much of the focus is on China, which provides oil and other economic assistance to North Korea and is seen as a critical player in diplomacy with Pyongyang. The U.S. has urged Beijing to exert leverage on North Korea, though so far Chinese efforts have been largely limited to diplomatic appeals.
China, North Korea's closest ally, and Russia, which has been trying to re-establish Soviet-era ties with the Stalinist state, showed little interest in sanctions, saying diplomacy remains the only way to resolve the dispute.