By Blaine Harden
Washington Post Foreign Service
Thursday, May 28, 2009
TOKYO, May 27 -- North Korea vowed Wednesday to attack South Korea if ships from the North are searched as part a U.S.-led effort to stop vessels suspected of carrying missiles or weapons of mass destruction. It also declared that the truce that ended the Korean War in 1953 was no longer valid.
The threat -- unusually broad and bellicose, even by North Korean standards -- came two days after the communist state was condemned by the international community, including longtime allies China and Russia, for testing a second nuclear device in violation of U.N. resolutions. Since Monday, the North has also launched five short-range missiles into the sea off its eastern coast.
The United States, Japan and their European allies are pushing for the adoption of a U.N. Security Council resolution that would strengthen sanctions against North Korea for the nuclear test and missile launches, according to Security Council diplomats.
The United States and its allies floated a proposal to expand a list of entities and individuals whose assets might be frozen. It could ban some North Koreans from traveling abroad. The countries are exploring ways to inspect more North Korean cargo on land and sea, expand an arms embargo and tighten a ban on luxury goods.
They also want to cut North Korea's access to the international banking system. "We are trying to dry out the resources for the military," said a senior U.N. diplomat close to the talks.
Council diplomats say they are still trying to overcome skepticism from Russia and China, which have been reluctant to impose tough economic sanctions. But senior U.N. diplomats say both countries have shown a new willingness to consider sanctions.
Monday's nuclear test pushed South Korea on Tuesday to join the Proliferation Security Initiative, which was created in 2003 by President George W. Bush and includes more than 90 countries that have agreed to interdict suspicious cargo ships.
On Wednesday, the government of Kim Jong Il went on a rhetorical counterattack. North Korea said it no longer could guarantee the safety of ships from South Korea and other countries sailing in the Yellow Sea off its western coast. It added that it would not honor a North-South border in that sea, which was drawn at the end of the Korean War.
The North also said it would not respect the legal status of five islands on the South's side of the line. Two naval clashes occurred in that area in 1999 and 2002, killing six sailors from South Korea and more than 30 from North Korea. In those skirmishes, North Korea was badly outgunned by the South's more modern weapons.
The armistice that ended the Korean War 56 years ago bars either side from imposing a naval blockade, and North Korea claimed Wednesday that the South had nullified the agreement by joining the anti-proliferation effort.
Since "the U.S. imperialists and [South Korean President] Lee Myung-bak's group of traitors have reneged" on the armistice, North Korea said, it is no longer obligated to obey international law or abide by bilateral agreements.
In Seoul, Lee called for "calm" and told his advisers to "respond with cool-headedness."
Government officials said North Korean ships will continue to be allowed safe passage in South Korean waters, according to Yonhap, the South Korean news agency.
Only ships suspected of carrying weapons of mass destruction will be targets of inspections, the officials said.
South Korea, though, has stepped up its surveillance of North Korea and increased its military readiness, according to a statement Wednesday night from the Defense Ministry. It said that U.S. and South Korean forces "will restrain additional North Korean provocation and manage the current situation towards stability, yet respond firmly to North Korea's possible military provocation." About 28,500 U.S. troops are in South Korea.
Analysts in Seoul said they regarded North Korea's warnings as serious but doubted the willingness of Kim to provoke a large-scale confrontation.
"The problem is that both sides cannot afford to make a concession," said Dong Yong-seung, a senior fellow at the North Korean division of Samsung Economic Research Institute. "It is like a game of chicken."
Andrei Lankov, a professor at Seoul's Kookmin University who has written several books about North Korea, said, "Small-scale shooting is possible and even probable, but nothing more serious than that."
"The location of mansions where Pyongyang's leaders enjoy their Hennessy cognac is well known to the American military, and North Koreans know the precision of U.S. cruise missiles," Lankov said. "The North will steer clear of any action which might lead to a real confrontation."
Staff writer Colum Lynch at the United Nations and special correspondent Stella Kim in Seoul contributed to this report.