The United States demanded North Korea pay a price for allegedly sinking a South Korean warship even as Washington and its Asian allies brace for possible “provocations” by the Pyongyang regime.
In a show of solidarity, US, Japanese and South Korean defence chiefs met in Singapore to discuss punitive steps against North Korea as the UN Security Council prepares to take up the crisis triggered by the sinking of the Cheonan.
US Defense Secretary Robert Gates told his counterparts that “it’s important we have a unified front to deter further provocations,” his press secretary, Geoff Morrell, told reporters.
While condemning North Korea’s alleged torpedo attack, which left 46 South Korean sailors dead, Washington and Seoul have called for calm and avoided talk of a military response.
But given the North’s volatile reputation, the United States and its allies have to be prepared for possible violence, Morrell said.
“When you’re dealing with a regime as unpredictable as (North Korea), that’s always a concern,” he said.
Tensions have soared on the peninsula since a multinational probe last month concluded a North Korean torpedo sank the Cheonan, triggering trade reprisals by South Korea and threats of war by the communist North.
In a speech to the security conference in Singapore, Gates said the US administration was looking at “additional options” against the North, apart from UN diplomacy and planned military exercises with South Korea.
He did not specify what the measures might be and US officials acknowledged that finding leverage against a country already accustomed to international isolation was a challenge.
“There has to be a consequence,” Morrell said. “But a traditional consequence might not have an effect.”
South Korea laid out its evidence against North Korea in meetings with defence officials gathered for the conference, seeking to pile pressure on Russia and China — which have yet to pin blame on the North.
In a speech apparently aimed at China and Russia, Gates warned of the risks of inaction and after his meeting with the South Korean and Japanese ministers said: “To do nothing would set the wrong precedent.”
South Korea on Friday formally asked the UN Security Council to respond to the sinking, after President Lee Myung-Bak called the attack on the Cheonan corvette a “military provocation”.
Addressing the Singapore conference, Lee dismissed Pyongyang’s denials of involvement as “laughable” but stopped short of calling for additional sanctions on the North.
US officials said Seoul and Washington were considering training exercises as well as a major show of force.
But a joint anti-submarine drill set for next week was postponed, as Gates suggested a delay would allow time for UN diplomacy to play out.
Gates also said that Seoul might seek a Security Council letter denouncing Pyongyang instead of a full-fledged UN resolution.
Such a diplomatic strategy is “not a manifestation of a lack of recognition of the nature of the provocation we have seen from North Korea, but may be more addressed to the worry about provoking further instability and further provocations from the North”, he said on Friday.
Seoul’s ambassador to the UN, Park In-kook, said he had handed a letter to Mexican ambassador Claude Heller requesting “action by the Security Council commensurate with the gravity of the situation”.
Heller, who is chairing the Security Council this month, said he would begin consultations with other Council members.
In his letter, Park described North Korea’s “armed attack” against the Cheonan as “a flagrant violation” of the UN Charter, the 1953 armistice accord that ended the Korean War, and a 1992 bilateral non-aggression pact.