SEOUL (Reuters) – China, pushed again by Washington to bring North Korea to heel after last week's artillery attack on the South, told Pyongyang their relationship had withstood international "tempests."
On Wednesday, South Korea's spy chief said it was highly likely the isolated North would attack its wealthy neighbor again. Admiral Mike Mullen, chairman of the U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff, said last week's bombardment threatened the stability of the region, home to three of Asia's biggest economies.
China has refused to blame its ally for shelling the South Korean island of Yeonpyeong, which destroyed dozens of houses and killed four people, or for the sinking of a South Korean naval vessel in March.
"The traditional friendship of China and North Korea has withstood the tests of international tempests and changes and replenished itself over time," Wu Bangguo, China's chief legislator, told a visiting North Korean delegation, China's main official newspaper, the People's Daily, reported on Thursday.
None of Wu's published remarks mentioned the recent confrontation between North and South Korea, or the long-running dispute over North Korea's nuclear activities.
Both Beijing and Pyongyang were committed to "strengthening strategic communication" and economic cooperation, said Wu.
China, which said it would not play favorites in the dispute, has proposed emergency talks of the six countries -- the two Koreas, China, Japan, Russia and the United States -- involved in North Korean denuclearization talks.
Chinese Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Jiang Yu said Moscow had expressed support for emergency consultations and Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin said in a CNN interview that continued dialogue was "in Russia's interests."
"Those who brandish weapons are seen to be justified, yet China is criticized for calling for talks. Is that justified?" Jiang said at a regular news briefing.
"I also want to say that emergency consultations are not a return to official six-party talks and should therefore not constitute a problem for the relevant parties," she added.
South Korea said again on Thursday now was not the time for talks.
The foreign ministers of the United States, Japan and South Korea are to meet in Washington on Monday to discuss North Korea. China is not included.
Chinese spokeswoman Jiang gave a cautious welcome to that meeting.
"We are paying close attention as to what this meeting is actually for," Jiang said in a statement on the Foreign Ministry's website (www.mfa.gov.cn)
"As the situation on the Korean Peninsular is highly complicated and sensitive, we expect the meeting to ease tensions and promote dialogue, rather than heighten tensions and intensify confrontation," she added.
The director of the National Intelligence Service, Won Sei-hoon, told a parliamentary committee meeting the North was likely to attack again once a U.S. flotilla, led by a nuclear-powered aircraft carrier, had left the region after military maneuvers with the South.
PICTURES SHOW DAMAGE FROM SOUTH'S RESPONSE
South Korea responded to North Korea's attack on Yeonpyeong minutes later with 80 shells, and the military said some of the shells had hit a barracks possibly causing "multiple casualties," Yonhap news agency reported.
"Satellite images show our shells landed on a cluster of barracks in North Korea, so we presume there have been many casualties and considerable property damage," it quoted a senior official at the South's Joint Chiefs of Staff (JCS).
Won revealed satellite pictures to a closed-door parliament session that showed one North Korean artillery base hit by 10 or so shells, including one that landed on the barracks, Yonhap news agency said.
An earlier image released by a U.S. commercial satellite company showed a dozen or so shells had missed what appeared to be a North Korean artillery base inland and exploded on abandoned land.
Currency markets briefly wobbled on specific reports of another attack before the end of the year, but South Korean stocks and the won were higher. North Korea makes threats against the South on an almost daily basis.
Admiral Mullen said China's push for new talks was no substitute for action.
"Beijing's call for consultations will not substitute for action and I do not believe we should continue to reward North Korea's provocative and destabilizing behavior with bargaining or new incentives," he said in a speech. "China is uniquely placed to guide North Korea to a less dangerous place."
Some analysts say the attack was Pyongyang's attempt to force the resumption of international negotiations that could bring it aid. Others saw it as an attempt to boost the military credentials of the country's leader-in-waiting, Kim Jong-un, the youngest son of ailing leader Kim Jong-il.
Six-party talks aimed at ending North Korea's nuclear program were suspended in December 2008 after North Korea walked out.
The United States and South Korea wrapped up the four-day naval exercise on Wednesday. Japan's Defense Ministry said South Korean military personnel will observe for the first time an annual U.S.-Japan joint military drill which starts on Friday.
(Writing by Nick Macfie; additional reporting by Chris Buckley, Ben Blanchard and Michael Martina in Beijing and Yoko Kubota and Kiyoshi Takenaka in Tokyo; Editing by Sanjeev Miglani)