HUNTSVILLE, Ontario (Reuters) - U.S. President Barack Obama led the Group of Eight rich nations on Saturday deploring what they said was North Korea’s sinking of a South Korean warship, and Obama said there must be consequences for such irresponsible action.
The G8 closed its annual summit with a strong statement accusing Pyongyang of stoking tensions that could spread far beyond northeast Asia, and urged North Korea and Iran to halt atomic programs which have set the world on edge.
Obama said the United States firmly backed South Korea’s push for the U.N. Security Council to condemn North Korea for the March 26 attack, which killed 46 South Korean sailors and sharpened tensions on the divided Korean peninsula.
“We are fully supportive of that effort and we think it is the right thing to do,” Obama told reporters after a meeting with South Korean President Lee Myung-bak on the sidelines of the Group of 20 summit in Toronto.
“There have to be consequences for such irresponsible behavior on the international stage.”
The G8 communique, issued after a two-day meeting in Huntsville, Ontario, north of Toronto, called for “appropriate measures” to respond to the attack. The G8 includes Japan, Russia and the United States, all involved in talks with China and South Korea to curb Pyongyang’s nuclear program.
North Korea has denied responsibility for the attack and China, Pyongyang’s main backer, has not said if it would be ready to back new U.N. moves against the unpredictable, nuclear-armed state.
In a review of the world’s hotspots, the G8 pressed Israel and the Palestinians to work for direct peace talks, and said conditions in Gaza under an Israeli blockade were “not sustainable and must be changed.”
It said it expected Afghanistan’s President Hamid Karzai to show “tangible progress” in security and governance, both key to Western plans to begin drawing down troops as the unpopular war nears its ninth year.
The G8 highlighted fears over nuclear proliferation, and fingered North Korea and Iran as major threats.
“The governments of Iran and North Korea have chosen to acquire weapons to threaten their neighbors. The world must see to it that what they spend on these weapons will not be the only costs they incur,” Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper said.
G8 nations helped guide through this month’s new U.N. sanctions against Tehran — boosting pressure on Iranian leaders who have vowed to maintain an atomic program they say is purely for peaceful purposes.
The rich nations club, which also includes Britain, Canada, France, Germany and Italy, called on all countries to fully implement new U.N. sanctions and said it appeared Iran was still on the path to develop atomic arms.
“We are profoundly concerned by Iran’s continued lack of transparency regarding its nuclear activities and its stated intention to continue and expand enriching uranium, including to nearly 20 percent,” the communique said.
The G8 leaders urged Afghanistan’s Karzai to use a conference in Kabul next month to show he is delivering on promises made to donors and military allies that he would improve security, fight corruption and strengthen governance.
With U.S. forces in Afghanistan due to hit 100,000 this summer and allies contributing a further 47,000 soldiers, Western countries want signs of progress that will allow them to begin pulling out soldiers on schedule.
Doubts have grown about the overall strategy after President Barack Obama this week fired his top Afghan commander, General Stanley McChrystal, in the wake of an inflammatory magazine article.
The G8 said it supported Karzai’s efforts to strike a peace deal with moderate elements of the Taliban, although how this unfolds on the ground could have serious implications for the U.S.-led battle against the insurgents.
The G8 urged both Israel and the Palestinians to keep working toward to direct peace talks, and expressed regret over the May 31 incident off Gaza that saw nine pro-Palestinian activists killed when Israeli commandos stormed an aid flotilla, earning international condemnation.
The group welcomed Israel’s decision to set up an independent public commission to investigate the incident, and urged Israel to fully implement a decision to begin relaxing the blockade imposed on Hamas-ruled Gaza some three years ago.
“The current arrangements are not sustainable and must be changed,” the communique said.
Reporting by the Reuters G20 team; Writing by Andrew Quinn, Editing by Peter Cooney and David Storey