YEONPYEONG ISLAND, 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 U.S. 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.
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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 U.S. warships, an official from U.S. Forces Korea said.Story: McCain: Time to discuss N. Korea 'regime change'
South Korea has deployed three destroyers, frigates and anti-submarine aircraft, Yonhap reported.
The border between North and South Korea is among the world's most heavily fortified, with the peninsula still technically in a state of war because the 1950-53 war ended with a truce, not a peace treaty.
North Korea also disputes the maritime border drawn by U.N. forces at the close of the war, and considers the waters around Yeonpyeong Island — 50 miles from the South Korean port of Incheon but just 7 miles from the North Korean mainland — its territory.
The area has seen several bloody skirmishes, including the sinking of a South Korean warship eight months ago, killing 46 sailors. An international team of investigators concluded that a North Korean torpedo sank the ship, but Pyongyang denies any involvement.
Tuesday's attack on the island, which has military bases as well as a civilian population of 1,300 who mostly make their living from fishing, marked a new level of hostility. Two marines and two civilians were killed, and 18 others wounded, when the North rained artillery on Yeonpyeong in one of the worst assaults since the Korean War.Video: North Korea’s dire warnings raise tension (on this page)
'Situation is not good'
The Defense Ministry said Sunday that journalists must leave Yeonpyeong Island because the "situation is not good."
A ministry official said that a ship will be arranged to evacuate journalists later Sunday. The official, speaking on condition of anonymity citing office rules, said other safety measures will be arranged for remaining islanders, rescue workers and local officials on Yeonpyeong Island.
About 380 people, including 28 islanders and 190 journalists, remain on the island on Sunday, according to Incheon city government that governs the island.
The previously planned joint war games launched Sunday by the U.S. and South Korea were sure to heighten the tensions.Slideshow: The life of Kim Jong ll (on this page)
Ships from both countries entered the exercise zone Sunday, an official with South Korea's joint chiefs of staff said on condition of anonymity, citing office rules.
The exercises are being held in waters far south of the disputed maritime boundary.
Washington, which keeps 28,500 troops in South Korea to protect the ally, insists the drills involving the USS George Washington supercarrier are routine and were planned well before last Tuesday's attack. However, North Korea expressed outrage over the Yellow Sea drills.
The nuclear-powered carrier USS George Washington, which carries 75 warplanes and has a crew of over 6,000, will be accompanied by at least four other U.S. warships, an official from U.S. Forces Korea told Reuters.
South Korea has deployed three destroyers, frigates and anti-submarine aircraft, Yonhap news agency reported.
Sunday's burst of artillery fire in North Korea was the second in three days. Authorities briefly ordered residents to evacuate, before recalling the order.
"We got the report that North Korea's artillery batteries were in the 'ready-to fire' posture," police chief Choi Du-gyu said. "So we decided to order residents to evacuate to keep them safe."Video: North Korean propoganda 'last of its kind' (on this page)
North Korea also staged an apparent artillery drill Friday, the guns sounding just as the U.S. military's top commander in the region, Gen. Walter Sharp, was touring Yeonpyeong Island. No shells landed anywhere in South Korean territory.
Last Tuesday's attack reduced dozens of homes on the island to rubble. All but a handful of residents have evacuated to the mainland.
Life went on as normal in the sunny and cold capital, Seoul. In the chic shopping district of Myeondong, tens of thousands jammed the streets looking for bargains and drinking coffee at cafes. There has been no disruption of air and shipping routes.
As monks chanted their morning prayers at Jogye Temple, Shim Jeong-wook, 74, said he didn't think North Korea would attack again, not with a U.S. aircraft carrier group in South Korean waters.
"I don't think North Korea will provoke while the U.S. Navy fleet is in the Yellow Sea," he said. "But who knows what will happen when it leaves?"
Reuters and The Associated Press contributed to this report.