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China's Wen reveals fears of any Korea conflict spreading

BEIJING (Reuters) - China repeatedly expresses fears about tensions on the Korean peninsula, but Premier Wen Jiabao took that point further by spelling out that any clash could have serious reverberations for the region, not least his own country.

Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao waves upon his arrival at the Haneda airport in Tokyo May 30, 2010. REUTERS/Yuriko Nakao

North Korea has been blamed by an international investigation for sinking the South Korean corvette Cheonan in March, killing 46 sailors, but China has refused to join condemnation of its ally Pyongyang and said it is still assessing the evidence.

In a transcript of an interview with Japanese broadcaster NHK posted on the Chinese Foreign Ministry website on Wednesday, Wen declined to say whether China would support any censure of the North by the U.N. Security Council. As a permanent member of the Council, China could veto any such action.

But China had a direct stake in resolving the stand-off, he said.

“If there is a clash, he people of North and South Korea will suffer the most serious harm, but China would be lucky to escape,” Wen said.

“In China we have a proverb: ‘If the city gate catches fire, the disaster even affects the fish in the moat’, Wen said, citing a traditional saying meaning innocent bystanders are vulnerable to trouble at their doorstep.

“Only neighbouring countries will have this feeling.”

Even a limited military clash between North and South Korea would rattle the region, and outright conflict -- which observers says remains extremely unlikely -- could unleash a flood of refugees over the North’s porous border with China.

Wen repeated calls for calm and restraint, and said he had discussed the issue over nearly four hours of talks with South Korean President Lee Myung-bak.

Seoul has pledged to take the incident to the U.N. Security Council, as it seeks to respond strongly to the deadliest military incident since the Korean war while avoiding letting tensions with the North getting out of hand.

“We will conscientiously study all aspects of the situation and reactions to it. We will fairly and objectively express our position. In terms of what we will do in the (U.N.) Security Council, please keep an eye on this,” Wen told his interviewer.

China is North Korea’s biggest trade partner and fought alongside the North in 1950-53 Korean War.

Beijing fears harsh condemnation of Pyongyang over the sinking could erode already-limited leverage over reclusive leader Kim Jong-il, dash any hopes of persuading him to abandon his nuclear weapons, and upset the brittle stability on the Korean peninsula, analysts say.

Reporting by Emma Graham-Harrison; Editing by Chris Buckley