South Korean marines plan to hold a drill on the island of Yeonpyeong in the disputed waters of the Yellow Sea [AFP]

The UN Security Council on Sunday met in an emergency session to try to cool down tensions on the Korean Peninsula, but was split on whether to publicly blame North Korea for touching off the crisis.

Pyongyang raised an alert for artillery units along its west coast on Sunday in what appeared to be its latest move in a growing crisis between the two Koreas,  South Korea's Yonhap news agency reported.

The report was issued ahead of a planned live fire drill by South Korea. South Korea's defense ministry offered no immediate comment on the report.
 
Bad weather has so far delayed the planned firing drill at a disputed border that has enraged Pyongyang.

Both sides have said they will use military means to defend what they say is their territory off the west coast, raising international concern that the standoff could quickly spiral out of control.

The 15 Security Council members were meeting behind closed doors to try to agree on a statement that Vitaly Churkin, the Russian UN Ambassador, said he hoped would send a "restraining signal" to both the North and the South.

Split on blame

Western envoys inside the meeting said the five permanent veto-wielding members were split over whether to blame North Korea for the crisis, as the US, Britain, and France - along with Japan - demand, or to urge both sides to avoid acts that could deepen the crisis, as Russia and China want.

The Chinese, North Korea's staunchest supporter on the council, and Russians reject the idea of assigning blame to Pyongyang.

"The council needs to send a signal that clearly communicates that North Korea has been acting as the aggressor and South Korea is well within its rights to prepare for its self-defense," a Western diplomat said.

Diplomats told the Reuters news agency that a Russian draft statement calls for Ban Ki-moon, the UN secretary general, to send a special envoy to Seoul and Pyongyang to urge a peaceful solution, and calls on the two sides to exercise "maximum restraint."

The diplomats said the Russian draft was unacceptable to Washington, London, Paris and Tokyo.

A British draft statement has the council saying it "deplores" North Korea's latest actions and urging Pyongyang to "act with restraint," but Russia and China have rejected that draft.

Washington has backed Seoul's push to go ahead with the planned live-fire drill on Yeonpyeong island, where four South Koreans were killed in an artillery attack last month.

Military drill continues

The drill, within view of the North Korean mainland, is scheduled to take place sometime before Tuesday.

US and Chinese officials have described the situation on the Korean Peninsula as "extremely precarious" and a "tinderbox".

Recent Western attempts to get the Security Council to rebuke Pyongyang over a deadly artillery shelling incident last month and its nuclear program have been blocked by China.

The UN Secretariat distributed to council members a document on an investigation of the November 23 shelling incident by the so-called UN Command, the US-led military forces in South Korea that monitor compliance with the 1953 Armistice Agreement that ended the Korean War.

That probe concluded the South did not violate the armistice with its November 23 military drills in disputed waters, while the North committed a "deliberate and premeditated attack" that was a "serious violation" of the cease-fire, according to the document, which was obtained by Reuters.

North Korea has called the artillery fire drill by the South a suicidal war move that would trigger all-out conflict on the peninsula and said it would strike back in self-defense.

The South has said if it was attacked in the same manner as last month, it would hit back hard with air power and bombs.

Analysts were sceptical that the North would carry through with its threats. The North will likely respond by holding a live fire drill on its side of the tensely guarded sea border, if the South goes ahead with its exercise, they said.

Source: Agencies