South Korea asks U.N. to take measures against North Korea in sinking of warship

By Craig Whitlock
Washington Post staff writer
Saturday, June 5, 2010

SINGAPORE -- South Korea said Friday that it has asked the U.N. Security Council to take measures against North Korea for allegedly torpedoing a warship, prompting the United States to hold off on a fresh display of military strength in the region.

South Korean President Lee Myung-bak said his government had formally referred the matter to the Security Council but did not specify whether it was seeking new sanctions against North Korea or lesser measures.

"If we think that after a while North Korea's action will be condoned and that stability on the Korean Peninsula will somehow be maintained, then we would be fooling ourselves because North Korea would once again resort back to attacking others," Lee told a gathering of Asian leaders at a security conference here.

The United States has been considering new joint military exercises with South Korea as a show of force in response to the March 26 sinking of the Cheonan, in which 46 sailors were killed. Seoul has accused Pyongyang of torpedoing the vessel, causing one of the worst security crises in the region since the Korean War.

But Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates said Friday that U.S. and South Korean officials had decided to give diplomacy a chance first. "There's a desire to see what can be accomplished first at the U.N.," he told reporters after meeting in Singapore with South Korean Defense Minister Kim Tae-young.

Defense officials in Washington said Wednesday that they were considering deploying an aircraft carrier, the George Washington, to the Yellow Sea as a warning to North Korea. In addition, Pentagon officials previously said they were planning two major joint military exercises with South Korea to demonstrate solidarity against threats from Pyongyang.

En route to Singapore on Thursday, Gates told reporters that "some additional exercises are being discussed," but added that he was "not aware of a plan to send a carrier to the waters off of South Korea."

After meeting with his South Korean counterpart Friday, Gates said it was unclear what course of action Seoul would ask the Security Council to take. "Whatever they choose to do with the U.N., they will have the full support of the United States," he said.

South Korea's options in the Security Council are limited without the backing of China, North Korea's strongest ally. Beijing is considered unlikely to agree to new sanctions against Pyongyang.

China has also been reluctant to go along with a U.S.-led campaign to seek new sanctions against Iran for its nuclear program. The Security Council is expected to make a decision on the Iran sanctions next week, and then will probably take up South Korea's complaint against North Korea, officials said.

Asked if he was concerned that a weak response by the Security Council in either case would make the United States look weak, Gates told reporters Friday: "I don't think anybody believes the United States is a paper tiger."

China has already disappointed South Korea by declining to accept the results of an international investigation that held North Korea responsible for the sinking of the Cheonan.

North Korea has denied responsibility and in turn has accused Seoul and Washington of manufacturing the incident.

"Such outlandish assertions are laughable," Lee said in his speech to the IISS Shangri-La Dialogue, an annual Asian security conference. "North Korea must admit its wrongdoing. It must pledge to never again engage in such reprehensible action."

In an implicit reference to China, Gates called on other countries in the region to hold North Korea accountable. "The nations of this region share the task of addressing these dangerous provocations," he said in his own speech to the conference Saturday morning. "Inaction would amount to an abdication of our collective responsibility to protect the peace and reinforce stability in Asia."

He said the United States is "assessing additional options" against North Korea, but he did not elaborate.

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