Monday, May 24, 2010

Clinton: Koreas security situation 'precarious'

By MATTHEW LEE, Associated Press Writer Matthew Lee, Associated Press Writer

BEIJING – U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton said Monday that the Obama administration is striving to avoid a conflict on the Korean peninsula following an investigation that blamed North Korea for the sinking of a South Korean warship.

Speaking to reporters in Beijing, Clinton said North Korea's chief ally China and its other neighbors understand that the situation is "highly precarious" and want to avoid raising tensions further.

"We are working hard to avoid an escalation of belligerence and provocation," Clinton said. "This is a highly precarious situation that the North Koreans have caused in the region." The U.S. will work with other nations to make sure that North Korea feels the consequences of its actions and changes its behavior to avoid "the kind of escalation that would be very regrettable," she said.

President Barack Obama has ordered U.S. military commanders "to ensure readiness and to deter future aggression" from North Korea, the White House said. The United States has 28,500 troops in South Korea.

Clinton's statement did not elaborate on what Obama's order meant in practical terms, and U.S. officials traveling with her in China demurred when asked for specifics.

In Washington, an administration official said military commanders are coordinating closely with South Korea's government and defense department on ways the U.S. could help if North Korea continues its threatening behavior. The official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because the discussions are ongoing, said that would likely include U.S. assistance with military training exercises.

The Obama administration appears determined to remain intentionally vague on how it might respond to the North Korean attack in order to keep its options open.

South Korean President Lee Myung-bak said earlier Monday that Seoul would cut all trade with the impoverished North Korean regime — part of measures primarily aimed at striking back at Pyongyang diplomatically and financially.

He also vowed to take the incident to the U.N. Security Council for punishment over the March 26 sinking of the Cheonan warship.

Both the White House and Clinton said the U.S. strongly supported Lee's moves. But winning China's support for U.N. action against the North is critical, because Beijing is a veto-wielding permanent member of the panel and can block any move there.

Clinton is in Beijing for high-level strategic and economic talks and members of her delegation say she has an uphill battle to convince the Chinese either that North Korea sank the ship — something Pyongyang has denied — or to support new U.N. measures against the fellow communist nation.

China is North Korea's main ally and has so far remained neutral in the matter despite an international investigation that found the ship was sunk by an explosion caused by a torpedo fired from a North Korean submarine.

But Clinton said that as a result of her discussions with Chinese leaders on Sunday and Monday she believed they "recognize the gravity of the situation we face." "The Chinese understand the reaction by the South Koreans, and they also understand our unique responsibility for the peace and stability on the Korean Peninsula," she said.

Earlier Monday in an address to the opening of the high-level U.S.-China strategic and economic dialogue, Clinton urged China to work with the United States to coordinate a response to the sinking and "address this challenge and advance our shared objectives of peace and stability on the Korean peninsula."

Clinton was joined onstage at China's Great Hall of the People by Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner and Chinese Vice Premier Wang Qishan and State Councilor Dai Bingguo, all of whom spoke. Neither Wang nor Dai specifically mentioned North Korea or Iran, but Dai made clear in that China would not support any attempt to provoke conflict.

"No attempt to stir up confrontation and stage war, be it a hot war, a cold war or even a warm war, will be popular in today's world," he said. "Nor will such an attempt lead to anywhere."

Similarly, Chinese President Hu Jintao, who also addressed the opening session, did not mention North Korea by name but spoke of the responsibilities shared by the United States and China for "managing regional hotspots" and "safeguarding world peace and security."

Speaking later, a Chinese foreign ministry spokesman, Ma Zhaoxu, repeated China's standard noncommittal response when asked about Clinton's call, telling reporters only that China hoped "all the relevant parties will exercise restraint and remain coolheaded, appropriately handle issues of concern and prevent escalation of the event."


Associated Press writers Joe McDonald and Julie Pace contributed to this report.

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