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Clinton backs South Korea's crackdown on North Korea over sinking of Cheonan warship

South Korea says North Korea is responsible for the torpedo attack that killed 46 sailors aboard the Cheonan in March.

Lee apparently has ruled out military action because he does not want to trigger an all-out war. But his measures seem bound to ratchet up pressure on the isolated Pyongyang government and could also 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 said that "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. 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."

China's reluctance to back South Korea has irritated Lee's government and underscores one of the challenges the United States faces as it seeks to forge closer ties to Beijing. A senior U.S. official speaking on condition of anonymity also noted 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 uranium-enrichment program. Of specific concern, the official 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, the environment, counterterrorism, nuclear proliferation and human rights -- are in Beijing for the U.S.-China Strategic and Economic Dialogue.

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. 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.

Reverberations in Tokyo

Officials and analysts said that the attack on the 1,200-ton Cheonan seems to be redefining the security equation in Northeast Asia, bolstering the United States, damaging China and concentrating the minds of Japanese officials.

The attack has provided political cover for Japan's government -- only the second opposition party to take power in nearly 50 years -- to end an eight-month-long feud with the United States and accept a plan to relocate a U.S. Marine base within Okinawa. On Sunday, Japanese Prime Minister Yukio Hatoyama announced that his country would abide by a 14-year-old agreement to move the Futenma air base in Okinawa to a less populated part of the island.

Hatoyama's government had campaigned on a platform that rejected the Futenma deal and advocated a more Asia-centric view of Japan's place in the world. But the Cheonan incident reminded them "that this is still a very dangerous neighborhood and that the U.S.-Japan alliance and the basing arrangements that are part of that are critical to Japan's security," the senior U.S. official said.

Clinton lauded Hatoyama on Monday, praising him for "the difficult, but nevertheless correct, decision" about the base.

"As a former politician, I know how hard Prime Minister Hatoyama's decision was, and I thank him for his courage and determination to fulfill his commitments," Clinton said. "This is truly the foundation for our future work as allies in the Asia-Pacific region."

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