WASHINGTON — The Obama administration Wednesday stepped up pressure on China to restrain its wayward ally North Korea after an artillery attack on Tuesday that killed four South Koreans and wounded at least 19 others on a small coastal island.
Declaring that China has a special influence over Pyongyang, U.S. officials urged Beijing to join other world powers in a sending a unified message aimed at halting further military attacks by North Korea and scaling back its expanding nuclear program.
"China is pivotal to moving North Korea in a fundamentally different direction," said Philip J. Crowley, the chief State Department spokesman.
U.S. officials, including Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton, have been pressing Chinese leaders in a series of conversations in both Beijing and Washington, he said.
There also have been discussions among members of the United Nations Security Council, which includes China, about joining in a statement condemning North Korea's attack, diplomats say.
Joint Chiefs Chairman Adm. Mike Mullen said during an appearance on ABC's The View that "it's very important for China to lead. … The one country that has influence with Pyongyang is China, and so their leadership is absolutely critical."
President Barack Obama will call Chinese President Hu Jintao in the next several days to discuss North Korea, while Clinton will be reaching out to her counterpart.
The calls for action reflect the Obama administration's growing recognition that China may be the best hope to restrain North Korea when other diplomatic options are limited and military action could ignite an escalation that sets the peninsula aflame. Yet U.S. administrations often have been frustrated in calls for Chinese help with North Korea, and there were signs that Beijing might again resist.
The Chinese foreign ministry called for both Korean states to exercise restraint but assigned no special blame to Pyongyang, to which it sends energy aid and other economic assistance.
"China strongly urges both North and South Korea exercise calm and restraint, and as quickly as possible engage in dialogue and contacts," said Hong Lei, a spokesman for the Chinese foreign ministry, in a statement posted Wednesday on the Web.
Meanwhile, Pentagon and other military officials provided more details about a joint naval exercise in waters west of the Korean Peninsula, now scheduled for Sunday to Dec. 1.
While U.S. participation in an exercise with the South Korean navy had been announced in July — and planning was under way for the event — the presidents of both nations set the specific dates in response to the artillery attack by North Korea, officials said.
"While planned well before yesterday's unprovoked artillery attack, it demonstrates the strength of the R.O.K.-U.S. alliance and our commitment to regional stability through deterrence," the Navy's 7th Fleet said in a statement, referring to South Korea by the abbreviation of its formal name, the Republic of Korea. "This exercise is defensive in nature," the statement added.
The aircraft carrier George Washington, which makes its home port in Yokosuka, Japan, and sails with a complete wing of combat aircraft, will lead four other U.S. warships in the joint exercise.
Military officials said the George Washington had been preparing to sail from its home port to participate with the Japanese navy in a joint exercise to begin Dec. 3. After the artillery exchange between the two Koreas, it was ordered to exercise with the South Korean navy before joining the exercise with the Japanese. U.S. officials said the George Washington was cruising toward waters 70 miles south of where Tuesday's attack occurred.
While many world powers quickly condemned North Korea's bombardment, China has urged only a resumption of stalled negotiations.
Several Chinese commentators appeared to endorse the North Korean viewpoint that Pyongyang's bombardment had been prompted by South Korean military exercises that sent fire toward North Korea.
"What actually happened was not as initially reported. … The military exercise was the fuse of the crossfire," declared Song Xiaojun, a military commentator on state-run CCTV.
Yet Beijing may step in to prevent the conflict from escalating, analysts said.
"China wants the environment to be peaceful and stable. We don't want a conflict, and neither does the United States. Like parents of fighting children, we will drag them apart to keep things under control," said Ni Lexiong, a professor at the Shanghai Institute of Science and Law. "Who fired first is meaningless."
On Wednesday, tensions remained high as Seoul vowed massive military retaliation should North Korea attack again, while Pyongyang threatened a second bombardment if South Korea encroached on its maritime border by "even 0.001 millimeter."
South Korean President Lee Myung Bak spoke with Obama and with Japanese Prime Minister Naoto Kan. In a 30-minute conversation, Obama said the United States will stand "shoulder to shoulder" with Seoul throughout the crisis.
Late in the day, officials found the bodies of two construction workers on the island, bringing the number of dead to four. The attack also killed two marines and wounded 19 others in what U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki Moon on Wednesday called one of the "gravest incidents" since the end of the Korean War.
John Park, an Asia specialist at the United States Institute of Peace, said that in a year of unusual U.S.-China tensions, the exercises are likely to be read "as yet more evidence of the efforts to contain China. This is a perfect storm that's rising."
Information from the New York Times was used in this report.