South Korea to halt all trade with North Korea over sinking of Cheonan warship

Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton greets officials in Beijing.
Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton greets officials in Beijing. (Saul Loeb/associated Press)
By John Pomfret
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, May 24, 2010

BEIJING -- South Korean President Lee Myung-bak said Monday that his country is stopping all trade and most investment with North Korea and closing its sea lanes to North Korean ships after the nation's deadly attack on a South Korean warship.

Lee also called for a change in the North's Stalinist regime.

The tough measures, announced in an address to his nation, were bound to ratchet up pressure on the isolated Pyongyang government and add a new flash point in U.S. relations with China.

"Fellow citizens, we have always tolerated North Korea's brutality, time and again. We did so because we have always had a genuine longing for peace on the Korean Peninsula," he said. "But now things are different. North Korea will pay a price corresponding to its provocative acts."

Lee then said that "no North Korean ship will be allowed to make passage through any of the shipping lanes in the waters under our control" and that "any inter-Korean trade or other cooperative activity is meaningless."

A senior U.S. official, traveling with Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton in China, said the United States will back "all the steps the South Koreans are going to announce." In an indication of the seriousness with which the Obama administration views the drama between the North and South, home to nearly 29,000 U.S. troops, he added: "We have not faced something like this in decades." Lee apparently has ruled out military action because he does not want to trigger an all-out war.

But Lee did condemn Kim Jong Il's regime. "North Korea's goal is to instigate division and conflict. For what reason and for whom is it doing what it does? As compatriots, I am truly ashamed," he said. "It is now time for the North Korean regime to change."

Lee also threw down a challenge to China, saying: "No responsible country in the international community will be able to deny the fact that the Cheonan was sunk by North Korea."

The U.S. official said that, based on talks over the past two days, Chinese officials have not accepted the results of a South Korean investigation -- backed by experts from the United States, Australia, Britain and Sweden -- that implicated North Korea in the attack on the 1,200-ton Cheonan that killed 46 sailors. As such, it is unclear whether Beijing will support Lee's measures or his call, also made in the speech, to take the issue to the U.N. Security Council.

China's reluctance to agree with the report underscores the challenges the United States faces as it seeks to forge closer ties to Beijing. The U.S. official also noted Sunday that China and the United States still do not see eye to eye on the details of planned economic sanctions on Iran for its failure to stop its nuclear enrichment program. Of specific concern, he said, are disagreements between Beijing and Washington about how investments in Iran's oil and gas sector will be treated. China has committed to investing more than $80 billion in Iran's energy sector; tightened sanctions against Tehran could threaten those investments.

U.S. officials said the Obama administration considers the situation in Northeast Asia and Iran so pressing that on Sunday night in Beijing, Clinton dispensed with the niceties of protocol and got down to a substantive discussion in the middle of a private banquet to welcome the biggest delegation of U.S. officials to Beijing to date. The officials -- a band of 200 led by Clinton and Treasury Secretary Timothy F. Geithner and specializing in fields such as health, energy and the environment, counterterrorism, nuclear proliferation, and human rights -- are in Beijing for the U.S.-China Strategic and Economic Dialogue.

Reverberations in Tokyo

Officials and analysts said that the attack on the Cheonan seems to be redefining the security equation in Northeast Asia, bolstering the United States, damaging China and concentrating the minds of Japanese officials.

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