U.S. Backs South Korea in Cutting Trade With the NorthSEOUL, South Korea — Tensions escalated sharply Monday on the Korean peninsula, as South Korean President Lee Myung-bak said that his nation would sever nearly all trade with North Korea, deny North Korean merchant ships use of South Korean sea lanes and ask the United Nations Security Council to punish the North for what he called the deliberate sinking of a South Korean warship two months ago.
In Washington, the Obama administration said the South Korean measures were “entirely appropriate.” President Obama instructed American military commanders to coordinate closely with their South Korean counterparts to “insure readiness and deter aggression.”
“The Republic of Korea can continue to count on the full support of the United States,” Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton said in Beijing, where she was attending high-level talks between China and the United States that have been overshadowed by the crisis. “Our support for South Korea’s defense is unequivocal.”
The steps outlined by Mr. Lee in a nationally televised speech — coupled with new moves by South Korea’s military to resume “psychological warfare” propaganda broadcasts at the border after a six-year suspension — amounted to the most serious action the South could take short of an armed retaliation for the sinking of the ship, the South’s worst military loss since the Korean War ended in a truce in 1953.
“We have always tolerated North Korea’s brutality, time and again,” Mr. Lee said. “But now things are different. North Korea will pay a price corresponding to its provocative acts. Trade and exchanges between South and North Korea will be suspended.”
North Korea’s military immediately warned that if South Korea put up propaganda loudspeakers and slogans at the border, it would destroy them with artillery shells, the North’s official K.C.N.A. news agency reported.
Mr. Lee’s speech came just as economic and security talks between China and the United States began in Beijing. In meetings on Sunday evening and Monday, Mrs. Clinton pressed Chinese leaders to take a much tougher position toward North Korea, China’s historical ally. Mr. Lee’s speech was bound to add to the pressure on the Chinese, who have called for restraint.
Mrs. Clinton expressed confidence that the Chinese would agree to take at least some measures, noting that Beijing supported additional sanctions against Pyongyang after it tested a nuclear device last year. But other American officials cautioned that Beijing remains unconvinced of the need to punish Pyongyang in the case of the warship.
“I can say the Chinese recognize the gravity of the situation we face,” Mrs. Clinton said to reporters after Mr. Lee’s speech. “This is a highly precarious situation that the North Koreans have caused in the region; it is one that every country that neighbors or is in proximity to North Korea understands must be contained.”
President Hu Jintao did not mention North Korea in his speech welcoming the American delegation, though he did say the two countries should “strengthen coordination on regional hot-spot and global issues.”
North Korea has denied responsibility for the sinking of the South Korean warship, the Cheonan, on March 26, which left 46 sailors dead. A growing body of evidence assembled by the South has suggested a North Korean torpedo sank the ship.
Cutting off trade with North Korea is the most punishing unilateral action the South could take against the impoverished North. South Korea imports $230 million worth of seafood and other products from the North a year. North Korea earns $50 million a year making clothes and carrying out other business deals with South Korean companies.
Mr. Lee also said that South Korea would block North Korean merchant ships from using South Korean waters, which would force the ships to detour and use more fuel.
Besides these unilateral measures, South Korea will “refer this matter to the U.N. Security Council, so that the international community can join us in holding the North accountable,” Mr. Lee said. “Many countries around the world have expressed their full support for our position.”
Mrs. Clinton declined to detail specific steps the United States is weighing until after she meets Mr. Lee in Seoul on Wednesday. Other administration officials said the United States might conduct joint naval exercises with South Korea in anti-submarine warfare in the waters off the Korean peninsula.
But Mrs. Clinton did not suggest that the State Department would soon add North Korea’s name to its list of state sponsors of terrorism, as some members of Congress have demanded. Reinstating North Korea, which was taken off the list by the Bush administration, would only happen if there was evidence that it was involved in acts of terrorism, she said.
In a separate announcement, the Defense Ministry announced the resumption of propaganda blitzes aimed at the North, a cold war tactic with loudspeaker broadcasts along the border, propaganda radio broadcasts and leaflets dropped by balloon. The resumption was bound to irritate the North Korea leader, Kim Jong-il, whose grip on power rests partly on denying outside information to citizens.
North Korea has already warned that such a move would prompt it to shut down the border with the South completely, raising the possibility of stranding 1,000 South Korean workers at a joint industrial park in the North Korean town of Kaesong.
President Lee cited evidence that a multinational team of investigators released last week on the sinking of the ship, saying “no responsible country in the international community will be able to deny the fact that the Cheonan was sunk by North Korea.”
But he did not mention China by name.
Mr. Lee also stopped short of terminating the Kaesong industrial complex.
Delivering his speech from the Korean War Memorial in Seoul, Mr. Lee drew an analogy between the North’s surprise invasion that started the three-year Korean War on June 25, 1950, and the blast that sank the Cheonan.
“Again, the perpetrator was North Korea. Their attack came at a time when the people of the Republic of Korea were enjoying their well-earned rest after a hard day’s work,” he said. “Once again, North Korea violently shattered our peace.”
South Korean soldiers aim their weapons near the demilitarized zone between South and North Korea, in Yanggu, north of Seoul, South Korea, 24 May 2010
South Korea's president has held a nationwide address to announce stern measures against North Korea. South Korea and the United States say Pyongyang is responsible for sinking a South Korean navy ship.
President Lee Myung-bak on Monday said North Korean must pay for sinking one of South Korea's navy ships.
Mr. Lee says inter-Korean exchanges and trade are being halted. In addition, North Korean vessels will no longer be allowed to sail through South Korean waters.
Forty-six South Korean sailors died in March when an explosion ripped their patrol ship in half. A multinational team concluded a North Korean submarine fired a torpedo at it, a finding Pyongyang calls a "fabrication."
President Lee says the military will defend South Korea if the North encroaches on its territory. However, he emphasizes the South does not seek armed conflict.
President Lee says minimal humanitarian aid to the impoverished North will continue.
In Beijing, U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton urged China to work with Washington in responding to the sinking of the South Korean ship.