WASHINGTON — The U.S. called on China on Wednesday to use its political clout to rein in North Korea as American officials confronted the limits of their influence over one of the world's most unpredictable, and least understood, nuclear powers.
Adm. Mike Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said during an appearance on ABC's "The View" that China's role was "critical" to keeping North Korea from undertaking provocative acts such as Tuesday's shelling of a South Korean island, which left four people dead, including two civilians.
"The one country that has influence in Pyongyang is China," Mullen said, referring to North Korea's capital. "Their leadership is absolutely critical."
That view was echoed by State Department spokesman Phillip Crowley, who called China's influence "pivotal to moving North Korea in a fundamentally different direction."
But few in Washington expect China to take any major steps, and Chinese news accounts steadfastly avoided any criticism of the north's actions. Xinhua, the official Chinese news agency, quoted a Chinese official as urging both North and South Korea to "do things conducive to peace."
Meanwhile, U.S. officials and defense experts said the U.S. response is complicated by the lack of knowledge of what precisely drives the North Koreans, who earlier this month also unveiled to visiting American scientists new uranium refining capabilities that will allow them to add to the country's stockpile of perhaps as many as a dozen nuclear weapons.
No new military confrontations were reported Wednesday, but South Korea raised the death toll from the shelling to four, saying that rescuers had found two dead civilians on Yeonpyeong Island, home to about 600 families. On Tuesday, the South Koreans reported that the shelling had killed two marines and injured 16 other soldiers.
Mullen said he thinks the North Korean shelling may have its roots in an effort by North Korean leader Kim Jong Il to shore up support among the military for his plan to have his son, Kim Jon Un, succeed him. The younger Kim was promoted to general earlier this year, but is reported to have little backing within the military.
"We think this is tied to the succession of his young 27-year-old son," Mullen said.
Others, however, said North Korea's actions may be intended to gain the attention of the international community and persuade the U.S. to resume six-party talks, which were designed to peacefully resolve North Korea's resumption of its nuclear program in 2003.
The North Koreans may hope resumed talks will lead to "substantial aid," said Victor Cha, who holds the Korea chair at the Washington-based Center for Strategic and International Studies. In the past, Cha said, North Korean provocations have elicited public rebuke but yielded private food and economic assistance from the South.
The U.S. has more than 28,000 troops in South Korea to guard against North Korean aggression, a legacy of the bitter three-year conflict that ended in a truce, not a peace treaty, in 1953.
Seoul and Washington reaffirmed plans to hold joint military exercises later this week in the Yellow Sea, just 70 miles south of Yeonpyeong. The White House said the aircraft carrier USS George Washington and its retinue of support ships would take part.
Destruction on island
On the island, 10 homes suffered direct hits and 30 were destroyed in the midafternoon barrage, according to a local official who spoke by telephone from the island just seven miles from the North Korean shore. About 1,700 civilians live on Yeonpyeong alongside South Korean troops stationed there.
"I heard the sound of artillery, and I felt that something was flying over my head," said Lim Jung-eun, 36, who fled the island with her three children, including a 9-month-old strapped to her back. "Then the mountain caught on fire."
The shower of artillery from North Korea was the first to strike a civilian population. In addition to the two marines killed, the bodies of two men, believed in their 60s, were pulled from a destroyed construction site, the coast guard said.
The skirmish began after North Korea warned the South to stop carrying out military drills near their sea border, South Korean officials said.
When Seoul refused and fired artillery into disputed waters — away from the North Korean shore — the North retaliated by shelling Yeonpyeong.