N.Korea threatens "physical response" to U.S. moves

HANOI (Reuters) - Secretary of State Hillary Clinton urged Asia on Friday to enforce tough sanctions against North Korea, which hit back by threatening a “physical response” to Washington’s plans for joint military drills with South Korea.

Clinton, speaking in Hanoi at the Asia-Pacific’s biggest security dialogue, also called on Myanmar’s neighbors to pressure the country’s military rulers for democratic reforms, and said Asia must join the global community in sending a “clear signal” to Iran to curb its nuclear ambitions.

“One measure of the strength of a community of nations is how it responds to threats to its members, neighbors and region,” Clinton told the 27-member ASEAN Regional Forum, which includes regional powers China, Japan and Russia along with the United States, European Union and Canada.

Clinton unveiled new U.S. sanctions this week against North Korea, blamed by both Washington and Seoul for the March sinking of a South Korean warship that killed 46 sailors and sharpened tensions over Pyongyang’s nuclear program.

A North Korean diplomat said Washington’s new sanctions and the U.S.-South Korean drills would be met with a “physical response,” and that charges it torpedoed the warship Cheonan had pushed the divided Korean peninsula “to the brink of explosion.”

“There will be a physical response to the steps imposed by the United States militarily,” Ri Tong-il, a member of Pyongyang’s delegation in Hanoi, told reporters. The military exercises, he added, would violate North Korean sovereignty.

Reclusive, communist North Korea is known for fiery, jingoistic rhetoric, often rattling sabers to alarm dialogue partners in the hope they would be more willing to make concessions in return for Pyongyang reducing its military threat.

But resuming talks appears difficult. Washington’s new sanctions target the ruling elite in the impoverished state and build on earlier U.N. sanctions that curbed trade with North Korea in hopes of persuading it to abandon its nuclear ambitions.

Clinton said it was essential that Asian nations enforce the punitive measures to encourage North Korea “to take the steps it must” to stop nuclear development and seek real peace.

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The United States hoped for the day when North Korea was “less concerned about making threats and more concerned about making opportunities,” she told reporters.

Asked about the possibility of a “physical response” by North Korea, U.S. State Department spokesman P.J. Crowley, speaking in Washington, said: “It would be unwise.”

Crowley also said if North Korea lives up to its promises to abandon its nuclear programs, took “affirmative steps” in that direction, and committed to better relations with its neighbors, “diplomatic opportunities could ... open up.”


Japan waded into the crisis, announcing plans to send four Maritime Self Defense Forces officers as observers to the large-scale U.S.-South Korean military drills that start this weekend, accepting invitations from both countries.

This will be the first time Japan’s self defense forces join a joint exercise by the United States and South Korea, a Defense Ministry spokeswoman said. The four officers will be aboard the aircraft carrier USS George Washington.

Clinton had hoped to rally regional support behind South Korea but fell short of building consensus for a direct rebuke of North Korea. A senior U.S. administration official said the vast majority of countries at the Hanoi talks expressed regret over the sunken ship, but less than half were willing to condemn North Korea and potentially anger its powerful ally China.

North Korean military officers held their second meeting with the U.S.-led United Nations Command on Friday at the Panmunjom truce village that straddles the border between the two Koreas, with another colonel-level meeting scheduled for July 29, the two sides said.

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North Korea’s state TV said on Friday night Pyongyang wanted to send a 20-30 strong team to investigate the Cheonan. “The truth has not been revealed,” the North Korean newsreader said.

In Hanoi, North Korea’s foreign minister repeatedly denied Pyongyang was responsible for the sinking, according to diplomats present at the closed-door talks.

Clinton told reporters North Korean belligerence prevented the United States from returning to six-party talks aimed at ending the North’s nuclear weapons program in return for generous aid.

“We stand ready to talk. It appears unlikely that we’ll be able to make any progress in the near term,” she said.

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The naval exercises are the first overt military response to the attack on the ship. The United States has said they are a show of force meant to convince the North to curb its “aggressive behavior” and will take place in international waters.

China has condemned the drills and launched its own exercises off its eastern coast, and Foreign Minister Yang Jiechi repeated Beijing’s opposition at a bilateral meeting with Clinton.

“Yang urged relevant parties to exercise calm and to refrain from acts that might escalate tension in the region,” China’s state news agency Xinhua said in a report of the meeting.


Clinton also urged Asia-Pacific ministers to put more pressure on Myanmar -- a member of the Association of South East Asian Nations (ASEAN) which anchors the forum -- to enact real democratic reforms and allow elections later this year which will be both free and credible.

President Barack Obama’s administration has expressed frustration that, despite U.S. offers of greater engagement, Myanmar’s military rulers have refused to budge on key demands. These include the release of an estimated 2,000 political prisoners, such as Nobel Peace laureate Aung San Suu Kyi.

It has also said it was concerned by reports that Myanmar, formerly known as Burma, was seeking North Korean help to develop its own nuclear program, which, if true, could open an alarming new front in the battle against global proliferation.

Clinton’s visit to Hanoi is part of the Obama administration’s broader effort to boost U.S. engagement with Asia, in part to counter the rising influence of China.

Clinton also urged regional leaders to resolve longstanding territorial disputes over the South China Sea, which pit China against Vietnam and other regional countries in squabbles over the vast, potentially-oil rich maritime region.

Additional reporting by Kiyoshi Takenaka in Tokyo, Kwon Youri in Seoul, Tom Miles in Beijing and Arshad Mohammed in Washington; Writing by Jason Szep; Editing by Ron Popeski and Alex Richardson