SEOUL, South Korea — As the U.S. and South Korea ended war maneuvers following North Korea's deadly bombardment of a front-line island, a North Korean soldier at the heavily armed border said Wednesday he hoped for peace.
The soldier, interviewed in the Panmunjom village inside the Demilitarized Zone, told the television news agency APTN that he hoped tensions between the sides would be eased "as soon as possible, in a peaceful way." The artillery barrage killed four South Koreans marine and two civilians on Nov. 23.
"I know that there were casualties on the South side," said Lt. Choe Song Il, the soldier assigned to escort the APTN crew to the Demilitarized Zone. "I hope that such military conflict between North and South should never happen again."
It was unclear whether his conciliatory comments were spontaneous or staged, and whether they merely reflected one North Korean soldier's opinion or gave some window into the military's stance as whole. However, North Korea has an authoritarian government that closely monitors its society.
They were striking words at a time of heightened tensions between the Koreas and a departure from the bellicose rhetoric of North Korea's state-run news agency, which has threatened "full-scale war" as recently as Tuesday if the country's territory is violated by any military maneuvers.
Even the North's official media has offered some conciliatory language about the attack. It said Saturday that it was "regrettable, if it is true, that civilian casualties occurred," although it blamed South Korea for creating a 'human shield' by having civilians near artillery positions.
South Korean intelligence chief Won Sei-hoon, meanwhile, told lawmakers that North Korea is likely to strike again, Yonhap news agency reported.
Won said in a briefing that North Korea likely carried out last week's attack because it needed a "breakthrough" amid worsening economic problems and internal dissatisfaction over a plan to transfer power from North Korean leader Kim Jong Il to his youngest son, according to Yonhap. The agency cited lawmaker Rhee Beum-kwan.
Repeated calls to the National Intelligence Service and to Rhee seeking confirmation went unanswered.
China, meanwhile, tried to restart the aid-for-nuclear-disarmament talks coveted by the North. But Washington, Tokyo and Seoul are wary of talking with the North.
Beijing wants emergency talks among the six nations who have negotiated over North Korea's nuclear program — the two Koreas, China, Russia, Japan and the United States — to discuss tensions embroiling the region after the attack.
"The parties concerned should keep calm and exercise restraint, and work to bring the situation back onto the track of dialogue and negotiation," Chinese Foreign Minister Yang Jiechi said in Beijing, according to the Chinese official Xinhua News Agency.
After walking away from the six-nation talks in April 2009, Pyongyang has shown it is now eager to restart them to gain much-needed fuel oil and aid in exchange for nuclear disarmament.
Seoul says North Korea must show real commitment to disarm and noting that the North has gone in the wrong direction with its revelation late last month of a new uranium enrichment facility that would give North Korea a second way to make nuclear bombs.
Three days of U.S.-South Korean drills involving a nuclear-powered supercarrier in western waters south of the disputed border ended Wednesday. The drills were largely aimed at testing communications systems and didn't have live fire, but North Korea expressed its fury over them.
A South Korean Joint Chiefs of Staff officer said that Seoul and Washington are pushing to conduct new joint military drills this month. The officer, speaking on condition of anonymity, citing agency rules, would only say that the drills would take place near the Korean peninsula.
South Korea's military separately plans what it calls routine weeklong naval live-fire exercises from 29 sites next week. Similar naval firing drills will follow in coming weeks, but Yeonpyeong Island and other front-line islands have not been immediately designated as firing sites, the officer said.
South Korea's military is deploying short-range surface-to-air missiles in Yeonpyeong to bolster its defense, Yonhap news agency reported. Military officials declined to discuss the report, but the government has said it will boost troops and weaponry there.
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