By John Pomfret
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, May 22, 2010; A08
TOKYO -- Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton condemned North Korea on Friday for a deadly attack on a South Korean warship and vowed that it would not go "unanswered," but senior U.S. officials stressed that neither side on the Korean Peninsula seems to be heading toward war.
Clinton's trip to the region is part of a whirlwind of diplomatic activity that will focus on crafting a response to North Korea's attack on the 1,200-ton Cheonan warship in March. Clinton met with Japanese officials Friday and will see Chinese and South Korean officials in coming days.
Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao will also travel to South Korea and Japan for a trip that will no doubt focus on the incident. South Korean President Lee Myung-bak is expected to address his nation on the attack, which killed 46 sailors.
The heightened tension seems to have helped push Japan to agree to most elements of a plan to relocate U.S. forces on Okinawa, specifically the Marines' Futenma Air Base, Japanese officials and media reports said. Prime Minister Yukio Hatoyama was scheduled to visit Okinawa this weekend to explain his decision, Japanese officials said. Japan's "language has changed since Cheonan," a senior U.S. official said. "There was a realization that this still is a very dangerous world."
In a blunt statement after meeting with Japanese Foreign Minister Katsuya Okada, Clinton said the United States "strongly condemns" the North Korean attack and that both countries would seek an international response.
"Let me be clear," Clinton said in her first public comments since South Korea released a report on Thursday formally blaming the North for the torpedo strike. "This will not be and cannot be business as usual."
South Korean investigators, assisted by experts from the United States, Australia, Britain and Sweden, concluded that the weapon that destroyed the ship was a North Korean-made torpedo in part because fragments of it "perfectly match" schematics of a product that Pyongyang has been offering to sell abroad.
U.S., South Korean and Japanese officials are trying to formulate a response that will be tough enough to deter further provocations from North Korea but will not spark a war on the Korean Peninsula, where North Korea's nuclear-armed forces face off against those of South Korea and nearly 29,000 U.S. troops. South Korea's capital, Seoul, is within easy artillery range of North Korea's big guns and could be pulverized within minutes, military experts have said.
North Korea's response to the investigation has been typically bombastic. "Our army and people will promptly react to any 'punishment' and 'retaliation' and to any 'sanctions' infringing upon our state interests with various forms of tough measures, including an all-out war," said a statement attributed to the North's National Defense Commission.
South Korean officials have said they want to take the issue to the U.N. Security Council and possibly slap more economic sanctions on North Korea. South Korea could also further limit its severely restricted trading relationship with the North. But senior U.S. officials briefing reporters covering Clinton's trip said they do not think Seoul is contemplating military action.
"I think it's clear that the South Koreans do not wish to go to war. . . . They will not take steps that run that risk," said a senior U.S. official, speaking on the condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the issue. As for the North Koreans, he said, he had seen no evidence that the attack was "the first step on the road to war."
"The hope is that this was a one-off action," he said, adding that North Korea has a long history of violence against South Korean targets.
Preventing "one-offs" could prove challenging. North Korea is believed to be armed with nuclear weapons. It has twice tested a nuclear device and pulled out of talks designed to persuade it to abandon nuclear weapons.
"We have never been good at stopping North Korean missile tests and nuclear tests," said Victor Cha, a former National Security Council official and North Korea specialist. "But we thought we were good at conventional deterrence, which has kept the peace since 1953. Now, my concern is that the North feels confident enough in its nuclear capabilities that they do not fear retaliation if they strike out conventionally to gain the upper hand."
China, where Clinton arrived late Friday at the head of a delegation of hundreds of U.S. officials preparing for annual talks with Beijing, is key to any plan to deter North Korea from further attacks. But China's reaction to South Korea's investigation has been lukewarm.
China waited almost a month to express condolences to South Korea for the loss of life on the Cheonan and throughout the crisis has tried not to take sides. It feted North Korean leader Kim Jong Il in early May and apparently presented him with a large package of aid.
Clinton will discuss the attack with Chinese leaders. U.S. officials said they want to see Beijing accept the investigation's results.
Cha said China has successfully balanced North and South Korea since 1992 when it recognized Seoul but now is being forced to choose between them.
"Aggression by North Korea on this scale really forces China to choose: its economic future with the South, or its communist past with the North," he said.